Richard Flanagan. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
Man Booker winner (2014). The "narrow road" is a railway the Japanese hastily want to build through the steaming rain forests of Thailand (Siam) during the Second World War. Prisoners of war, mainly Australians, are the forced labourers lacking proper tools, food, and medical aid. They die every day in the most squalid conditions. This is what "Bridge on the River Kwai" memorialized ― without the technicolour and without Alec Guinness. It's a graphic visit to humanity's hell. The novel's alternating episodes before, during, and after the war are a bit disconcerting at first.
But the book also dwells on one man's experiences before and after the war. Doctor Dorrigo Evans is a prime example of a life scarcely lived, although many of his POW associates exhibit the same symptoms post-war. The men are oh so real, but most are confused with unarticulated feelings. Does life follow a line or a circle? Not a particularly sympathetic character overall, in my view, Dorrigo is contrasted with Japanese officers who apparently never question the war machine. His appeal to women is never quite clear; his ultimate boredom, unsatisfactory marriage, and sense of loss and failure are depressing. In short, Narrow Road is highly insightful and educational but not a cheerful read.
One-liner: Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause. (41)
He had been beaten all the time in the Japanese Army, and it had been his duty to beat other soldiers. Why, when he was training he had been knocked out twice, and once suffered a ruptured eardrum. He had been beaten with a baseball bat on his buttocks for showing 'insufficient enthusiasm' when washing his superior's underwear. He had been beaten senseless by three officers when, as a recruit, he had misheard an order. He had been made to stand-to all day on the parade ground, and when he had collapsed they had fallen on him for disobeying the order and beaten him unconscious. (238)
Constant POW beatings:
For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only veracity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and the fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence. (221)
Visiting his brother:
Tom told him how he had the heart attack that felled him in the Kent Hotel, just as he was about to throw a bull's eye.
A bull's eye?
Had it in the bag, Tom said. Bloody embarrassing way to go, in a puddle of piss with a dart in your mitt. Would have preferred somewhere private, like the tomato patch. (303)
Linwood Barclay. Never Look Away. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2010.
The prolific Barclay pulls off another of his middle-class-in-suburbia specialities where life goes horribly wrong for an average family. David Harwood is a journalist for a small-town newspaper, being thwarted by corporate malefactors during his investigation of a corruption story. His wife Jan suddenly disappears and the police treat him as a "person of interest." Dave is bewildered by a succession of inexplicable events, so much so that the reader wonders when the lunkhead will catch on. We are led into a subplot before the lightbulb pierces the gloom for poor, frantic Dave. Typical Barclay momentum speeds up in two streams with a dead body, identity fraud, and the kidnapping of his son. Haven't met a Barclay yet that doesn't live up to the thriller genre.
"Please," I said. "I get what's going on. We like this new prison. We don't want to make waves. We act real nice and play down local opposition to this thing and we get to sell them the land they need to build."Something flickered in Madeline's eyes. Maybe she'd figure out Brian had told me. Fuck him."But this will end up biting us in the ass later, Madeline. Readers, they may not get it right away, but over time, they'll start figuring out that we don't care about news anymore, that we're just a press release delivery system, something that keeps the Target flyer from getting wet, a place where the mayor can see a picture of himself handing out a check to the Boy Scouts. We'll still carry car crashes and three-alarm fires and we'll do the annual pieces on the most popular Halloween costumes and what New Year's resolutions prominent locals are making, but we won't be a fucking newspaper. What's the point in doing all this if we don't care what we are anymore?"Madeline looked me in the eye and managed a rueful smile. "How are things, David? How's Jan?" (43)
The lower classes:
At last night's dinner at the Big Boy just off the interstate, he'd had his meal half eaten before she had her napkin unfolded and on her lap. He was shoveling it in like the restaurant was in flames, and he wanted his fill before his hair caught fire. (165)
Malcolm Mackay, The Sudden Arrival of Violence. UK: Mantle/Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2014.
The third and final book of his Glasgow underworld series demonstrates once again that this young author has more than made his bones in crime fiction. Whether Glasgow criminals interest you or not, the almost staccato writing style propels you forward into a whirlwind guessing game. It's a stand-alone book, but readers of the previous two (it helps) will recognize the leading characters. Organized gangs watch for takeover opportunities, at the same time forced to watch their own backs. Strategic planning to weaken a rival group is always on the table. Weary detective Fisher works day and night for his opportunity to take them all down.
After two murders, how much false evidence can the schemers plant with the police? Can one of their gunmen achieve his goal of leaving "the life" to disappear off their radar? His plan might work if they don't kill him first. But once snagged into the nefarious way of life, it's a lifetime contract with no escape clause. The insight into the thinking of these men (and the occasional woman) is amazing and compelling. Brilliantly plotted.
George doesn't live in fear of death. If you stay away from the killing, it tends to stay away from you. But he has beaten up a lot of people in his working life. Some who are just stupid enough to think revenge might be a good idea. He's had a couple of people come after him over the years. Looking to get even. Looking to show the people around them that they're still tough. It's a certain type of person you have to worry about. The pathetic junkies are no threat. They're living day to day. They have no concept of revenge for historical acts. It's small-time dealers, the wannabes. ... You beat up some little bastard who thinks he's a big tough gangster. He's humiliated, so he looks for revenge. Happened twice. Both times they tried to deliver the beating themselves. Forgetting that George is a professional. Beating is what he does. A second humiliations taught them to give up. (180)
She's gone now. Sashaying out of the office. They didn't discuss numbers, but she accepted the offer. She put up a little token resistance at first, as good form dictates. But she took it. She was always going to take it. She won't get the money until after her meeting with Fisher. It's payment for telling Fisher what Jamieson wants him to hear, and she must know it. (236-237)
The hit man:
There's only one thing he knows how to do well. Kill people. He knows how to scout a target. Knows how to do the job. Knows how to get away. He's good at it. Spent years thinking about it, planning each job, learning every detail. His biggest challenge will be avoiding that career from now on. Making sure he doesn't weaken, and take a job somewhere. Wouldn't be hard. Every city has its own criminal industry. Every criminal industry needs talented gunmen. The pay is good, the work is easy, if you have the skill for it. Wouldn't be hard to meet the right people. Not if you know what you're looking for. (189)