The Volunteer, by Salvatore Scibona

Names play a big role in The Volunteer by Salvatore Scibona. They represent identity, heritage, and belonging for the three men at the heart of this novel. When these men are asked, “Who are you?” They might pause before they give their names because the names on their documents aren’t really who they are. Tilly has been living under an assumed name since the mid 1970s. Elroy was given a name by the members of a commune and was never told who his real father was. Willy was given his name by a German priest after being taken in after his father abandoned him in Germany. The Volunteer tells Tilly’s story, show us how misconceptions and bad decisions can haunt men for the rest of their lives.

Tilly was once called Vollie Frade. Vollie comes from Volunteer, his parents’ nickname for him. Vollie was born late in his parents’ lives. As their only child, the Frades didn’t know what to do with their son once he hit his teenage years. In a fit of pique or rebellion after an argument over buying a fast car, Vollie joins in the army and is shipped out to Vietnam post haste. Vollie has to change his name when he gets pulled into illegal, covert action in Cambodia. All of Vollie’s decisions made sense to him at the time. Why shouldn’t he buy a car with his own money? Why shouldn’t he reenlist? But when Vollie’s father dies and he couldn’t bring himself to go back to Iowa, Vollie becomes Tilly in an effort to completely start over with a new name, even if he has to do it by participating in even more illegal, covert action (stateside this time). Tilly has a complicated biography. It gives a woman at the Veterans Administration fits later on when Tilly’s adopted son signs him up to get medical care and benefits.

There are patterns in The Volunteer, but they can be hard to spot as Tilly, Elroy (Tilly’s adopted son), and Willy’s (Elroy’s biological son) lives play out with eloquent variety. Bad decisions are compounded because each man can’t help but push people away or committing acts of violence or refusing to cooperate at every turn. This sounds bleak—and a lot of this novel is bleak—but there was always the hope of redemption and happiness if only the men can bring themselves to reach out to another. We even get to see a bit of this brief happiness (tragically too brief one instance), which helps leaven the sadness. And it ends with a moment of hope, when Willy literally reaches out to a woman to save her from a terrible accident; we can leave The Volunteer thinking that this tangled, strange family might get things right after three generations. We can also leave the book thinking that, if we can’t have a family with our biological kin, perhaps we can make a new one with people who help fulfill elementary psychological needs.

The Volunteer might strike some people as overlong. There are several stretches where Scibona takes us on tangents that last for many pages, based on relatively small connections to the lives of the three men. There are also passages where Scibona breezes through years of Tilly, Elroy, and Willy’s lives (included one where everything happens in the passive voice). The rest of the book—and Tilly himself—more than made up for it, I think. I found this book to be a fascinating exploration of the male psyche, identity, guilt, makeshift father-son relationships, and much more. Readers who love psychological character studies will enjoy this book. There is so much to talk about in The Volunteer, so I would also recommend this book to book groups who have a taste for tragedy or who like to tease out tricky ethical situations.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, by Roselle Lim

The news that her agoraphobic mother has passed away sends Natalie Tan back to San Francisco at the beginning of Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, in Roselle Lim. Her return to the city of her childhood not only brings up troubled memories of her relationship with her mother, but also puts her on a quest to reopen her grandmother’s legendary restaurant in an effort to restore the rapidly gentrifying Chinatown she loves. To make things even more interesting, Natalie receives a book of magical recipes written by her grandmother and can see the effects of those recipes in colors and sounds around the people she feeds. Lim’s book strikes just the right note between magic and reality.

Natalie has been on the run from her past, in a low-key kind of way, since she left home and failed out of culinary school. Even though Natalie is a very good cook, she hasn’t been successful financially. After she returns to San Francisco for her mother’s funeral, an old family friend gives Natalie a copy of her grandmother’s recipe book and a prophecy. Natalie can only successfully open a restaurant if she prepares three meals for three people in the neighborhood and helps them with their problems. The pacing of the book faked me out at first. I thought things were going a little too well, a little too quickly, at first. But then things go really pear-shaped and Natalie has to do some serious re-thinking about her meddling.

I liked Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune a lot. The plot is interesting, but what really made this book for me are the descriptions of the food Natalie prepares. They often made me want to run out and go find a really good Chinese restaurant that might serve me fresh-made noodles in broth or dumplings. I also loved Natalie’s memories about what her neighborhood used to be and the lessons she learns about the differences between meddling and truly helping people. This would be a great comfort read for many readers and, I think, would also make a fun book club book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

Graham Greene’s masterly novel, The Quiet American, is the kind of novel that I find impossible not to read as an allegory. In this brief, devastating novel, two men—one British and one American—fight for the affections of a Vietnamese woman without really considering her wishes or feelings. The woman rarely gets to speak while the two men debate what’s best for her and her country in either deep cynicism (the Briton) or naive idealism (the American). This novel is not just allegory. It is also the story of a man wrestling with his conscience and his long commitment to neutrality, which is harder to maintain as conditions grow more violent.

The Quiet American is set in the mid-1950s in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), when the French were still fighting to hang on to their colony and Americans were just barely getting involved in the escalating conflict. Thomas Fowler has been in the city for two years, working as a reporter for a British newspaper. He is content. He has a mistress, Phuong, who cares for his needs. His job is not difficult, as much of what he writes is delivered and press conferences and anything controversial is censored before it leaves the country. The French regime is beginning to crumble around him, but Fowler isn’t worried about much. (The opium might be helping with that. It’s hard to say for sure.) The arrival of American Alden Pyle throws Fowler’s carefully maintained status quo off its axis. Pyle decides, after one meeting, that he is in love with Phuong and is determined to marry her.

Pyle is a fascinating character. I’ve met cynical, detached-but-sensitive characters like Fowler before. I’m comfortable with his blasé view of the political and social landscape. But Pyle is another story entirely. Pyle comes straight from Boston, armed with books by armchair political theorists who tell him that Democracy is something everyone should have, especially when Communism is lurking about. If asked, I don’t know that Pyle would be able to give clear definitions of either. He’s been taught that Democracy is the ideal and the Communism is evil. Even when he’s confronted with evidence that the situation in Vietnam is complicated and that his version of Democracy is just a different flavor of colonialism, Pyle refuses to learn. Pyle horrified me as often as I pitied him for his rigid world view.

The Quiet American has been on my to-read shelf for a long time. It’s been lauded as a mid-twentieth century classic and I am happy to report that it absolutely deserves its reputation. It hasn’t lost any of its punch in the sixty-four years since it was published. Its commentary on imperialism, interventionism, paternalism, and independence are just as effective (and important) as they were in 1955. I strongly recommend this for historical fiction readers who like books that carry a timeless message. Even for readers who don’t want too much moralizing, this novel is a brilliant study of two men in a foreign country who approach life from very different angles. The Quiet American, if nothing else, is a terrific read for its depiction of what happens when pragmatism and idealism collide.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich

What does it mean to be a saint? There’s the Catholic definition. There’s also the word we toss around to describe people who are especially good or pious, but without the miracles. This question, along with questions about identity, gender, goodness, atonement, love, religion, and more, fuel Louise Erdrich’s beautiful novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. The novel moves back and forth in time as Father Damien Modeste slowly reveals the secrets they’ve been holding on to for decades, as another priest arrives to investigate whether or not the controversial Sister Leopolda should be considered for sainthood. The more I learned, the more I wondered if the strict definitions of saintliness might exclude a genuinely good person and uphold a woman who needed a psychotherapist more than anything else. 

Father Damien, we learn fairly early on in the novel, was not always a father…or even a Damien. They were born Agnes DeWitt and spent time as a postulant before pursuing her love of music away from the convent. After a touching but slightly odd relationship with a man who is killed by a bank robber and an encounter with a missionary priest who drowns in the Red River, Agnes reinvents herself as Father Damien. For the rest of the novel, this character is alternately referred to as he and she, Damien and Agnes. This character is not overtly transgender. Rather, they have remade themselves so that they can do the job they’ve chosen for themselves: doing God’s work. (It’s still easier to refer to this character without gendered pronouns, because their sense of identity changes from sentence to sentence.) The really interesting thing, for me, is that Damien/Agnes doesn’t have as firm an idea of what that is as other Catholic priests do. After an upsetting scene in which Damien is manipulated into breaking up a polygamous family, Damien/Agnes stops doing what is expected of priests and spends a lot more time listening and a lot more time forgiving. 

Damien/Agnes’ brand of Catholicism stands in stark contrast to the Catholicism of Sister Leopolda. Damien/Agnes met Leopolda when she was still known as the Puyat or Pauline Puyat. From the first, Damien/Agnes has a strong aversion to Pauline. There is something unsettling about the way the girl mortifies herself, how she draws attention to herself in disastrous ways, and how she twists God’s love into a punishment for everyone. We learn later why Pauline is so determined in her penances, but to all outward appearances, Sister Leopolda seems like the kind of miraculous saint that used to appear during the Middle Ages. People are ready to ascribe all kinds of miracles to her—though I noticed that the people who want to believe she was a saint never met her. Some of the people who met Sister Leopolda refuse to speak about her, the experiences were so traumatic. 

The chapters in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse drift back and forth from 1996, the last year of Damien/Agnes’ very long life, and years between 1910 and 1960. Each chapter reveals a little bit more about their extraordinary life. Though I wanted to know more about her, Sister Leopolda remains mostly in the background. Because she only rarely appears directly here, we can concentrate on Damien/Agnes’ evolving faith. Even though their first meeting became one of the many things Damien/Agnes feels they need to atone for, Nanapush becomes a huge influence on Damien/Agnes’ increasingly syncretic faith. Over time, Damien/Agnes begins to pray as much to Nanabozho as they do god and speak more in Ojibemowin as they do English. Above all, Damien/Agnes forgives. Even after they retire from most of their church duties, parishioners still prefer that Damien/Agnes to hear their confessions. It’s not the penances or the words of absolution. It’s the feeling Damien/Agnes conveys of genuine forgiveness and love. Unlike the people who knew Sister Leopolda and won’t speak of her, the people who know Damien/Agnes fiercely, openly love them—and they are just as fiercely loyal about their priest’s secrets. 

It’s all a bit bewildering to the visiting priest, Father Jude Miller. Father Jude expected either miracles or a thorough debunking. Finding a new variety of Catholicism was definitely a surprise. Reading this book and hearing all the stories—especially the uproarious story of Nanapush’s death and wake—offer so much food for thought that I want to have other people read it so that I can talk to them about it. This book was a joy. It’s packed with things I love in a book: nonlinear story telling, irreverence and deep questions about faith, intricate family histories, a sense of humor, starting in one place and ending up in an opposite place, great characters, a hint of darkness. I strongly recommend The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse to any reader who also loves these things, with a special extra nudge for book groups. This is definitely the kind of book that you’ll want to keep talking about after you read the last beautiful, aching scene.

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

38236861The more historical fiction I read—especially when it’s paired with a contemporary narrative, like a strong underline—the more I realize that society is always in crisis. The old guard hold on fiercely to what they believe is the right way of doing things. Their children may buck the system a little, but they were raised to see the world the way their parents do. The grandchildren, at least as presented in Barbara Kingsolver’s wrenching novel Unsheltered, offer a bit of hope that we might learn from the mistakes of the past and live better than their forbearers.

In the present (plus or minus a few years), Willa is approaching the end of her rope. The house she and her family have inherited in Vineland, New Jersey, she is informed, will soon start to collapse around them. Her husband, having lost his well-paid position at a closed university, scrapes by as an adjunct. Her son just lost his partner to suicide a short time after the birth of their son. Her father-in-law is dying of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Her daughter, Tig, has mysteriously returned from Cuba, carrying an emotional burden she won’t talk about. Perhaps worst of all, Willa seems to be the only one who can see that the family is hovering at the edge of penury.

In the 1870s, Thatcher Greenwood has just taken up a position as science teacher at a school in the Landis Township (now Vineland). He, his wife, sister-in-law, and mother-in-law have moved into a house owned by the mother-in-law, a house that is suffering structural integrity problems similar to the ones Willa’s house has. Thatcher also has similar problems with money. (Teachers don’t make enough money in any century.) But what angers him the most is the way that the principal of the school refuses to let Thatcher teach anything that might challenge a fundamentalist Christian view of the world. No chemistry experiments or microscopes. Certainly no Darwin. Not even a field trip to the nearby Pine Barrens.

Unsheltered is both a slow burn of a book and a pointed examination of the logical dead ends American society keeps hitting. Reading about Willa and Thatcher’s months in Vineland/Landis Township felt like I became an invisible member of the families. I witnessed little moments of tenderness and love as well as bitter arguments about the right way of things. Both Willa and Thatcher are peacemakers. They keep calm and carry on as much as possible. After all, they believe that they are the ones keeping the families together and sheltered. It takes an other character to make them realize how much they themselves have contributed to their untenable positions. In the end, both Willa and Thatcher are asked if it’s worth it to keep working towards their original goals of big house, keeping up appearances, and working with the system—or if it’s time to break ties and start over with a new plan.

Unsheltered fits with Kingsolver’s other novels, though it has less to do with nature than Flight Behavior or Prodigal Summer. This book once again shows us the ways we can tangle ourselves up in when we have to juggle the expectations of others with one’s own desires or curiosity. Even though it takes a while to get off the ground and contains blatant references to American politics around 2016 that could get dated, Unsheltered offers so many questions to think about that desperately needed to be asked. I think this book would be terrific for book groups, as well as for readers who look around and wonder if there’s a better way to live. After all, the materially comfortable and politically apathetic (or impotently furious) way we live now can’t last forever.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2016.


Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who feel stuck and those who feel depressed when they turn on the news.

Gone So Long, by Andre Dubus III

38212100Some actions are unforgivable. Though our Western culture is steeped in a religion that exhorts us to forgive those who trespass against us, there’s not a whole lot of guidance on how to do that or how we should live if we can’t forgive someone. In Andre Dubus’s shattering new novel, Gone So Long, we follow a daughter and her grandmother who cannot forgive a man for murdering the girl’s mother. The novel builds and builds to the moment when daughter and father meet again after 40 years…but to get there we have to hear the whole story and its aftermath first.

Susan has been adrift since she was three years old, when her father murdered her mother in their ocean-side cottage. All her life, she’s been told that she’s a spit of her beautiful mother. Male eyes follow her the same way they followed her mother. She is constantly warned away from boys—who might do to her what her father did to her mother—by her emotionally damaged grandmother in harsh terms. Four decades later, Susan is married to the most patient man on the planet while she works on cathartic documents that move back and forth from novel-modeled-on-the-author’s-life to autofictional memoir. The documents bring up so much that she was repressing, so much that has lead her astray from her potential.

While we work our way through Susan’s current life and her memories, we also get her father, Daniel’s, version of events. We see his current life as an ex-felon who works re-caning and restoring old furniture. We also get, in letter form, a terrible tale of jealous. I was worried for long chapters that Daniel—and the narrative—would blame Susan’s mother for her own murder. Fortunately, Daniel squarely takes the blame. He was a jealous monster and he took a life. Daniel’s problem now is that so much time has passed without contact with his daughter that he has no idea how to even approach her, even if he knew what to say to her.

In addition to the book’s meditations on forgiveness and the potential impossibility of forgiveness, I was struck at the emerging theme of a person’s worth. Susan and her mother, along with other women mentioned in Gone So Long, are called cheap when they wear make-up and revealing clothing. When women are talked about as mothers, the speakers (Daniel, Susan’s grandmother, etc.) seem to elevate the worth of these women. I was fascinated by the way that language about money is repurposed to talk about a person’s worth to society and others, as if being considered “cheap” justifies others’ taking advantage or hurting women. This theme about worth and “cheapness,” I thought, did a lot to argue against any excuses that what Daniel did was justified. A person’s worth comes from the fact that they are human beings and should not be diminished because someone is jealous or judgmental.

Gone So Long is a slow novel. It’s an emotional, thoughtful novel. It’s the kind of novel that lingers in the mind long after you’ve finished it, because it contains a world of truth. The universe in this novel is realistically imperfect. The characters are so psychologically rich that I could easily picture them sitting in their hot Florida rooms as they wondered about themselves and what the hell they should say to each other. I wasn’t immediately hooked the way I was with House of Sand and Fog, but I’m glad I hung in there. I was more than rewarded by the end of Gone So Long. This brief review doesn’t do the book justice.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley and Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 2 October 2018.


Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend for readers who have unforgivable skeletons in their family closets.

Dream Country, by Shannon Gibney

37683438Who is to blame for the conditions that are turning Kollie Flomo into someone consumed by violent anger? The proximate cause is the tension between Black Americans and African immigrants who are forced into close quarters at Kollie’s Minneapolis high school. But what caused that tension? To answer that question, Shannon Gibney takes us back in series of connected stories about Kollie’s ancestors in Dream Country. In Kollie’s story, every terrible thing that happens is the result of another terrible thing that came before. The chain of blame stretches across an ocean and two centuries.

Kollie is the child of Liberian immigrants who came to the United States after the first Librarian civil war. He has memories of being in Liberia, but he has spent most of his life in Minneapolis, though mostly with other Liberian immigrants. The other Black students at their school—African Americans—enforce a sharp division between themselves and the African immigrants. The Americans mock the Africans’ food, dialect, and attitudes. The Americans call them primitive and every action and comment makes Kollie’s blood boil. After Kollie starts a fight at school and puts another student in the hospital, his parents ship him back to Liberia. They believe it’s the only way to save him.

Kollie’s story takes the first third of Dream Country. Once he arrives at the airport, the perspective shifts to a Liberian man on the run in 1926. Togbar has just run away from his village in an attempt to escape a forced labor crew. After Togbar’s narrative, we go back further in time, to 1820, as freedwoman Yasmine pushes her family to Norfolk, Virginia. In Norfolk, the family can get a boat to the new colony of Liberia. There are hints in these narratives and the shorter ones that follow to let us know that Kollie is descended from Togbar and Yasmine.

Over and over, these characters try to start over, to find a place where they can build a life out from under anyone’s thumb, only to fail. Anger builds over the generations until it seems to explode in Kollie. What causes these characters to fail so many times is racism, classicism, colorism, and other prejudices the hold them down. In Yasmine’s time, we see two varieties of this. White Americans firmly believe that Black people are inferior. The Black Americans believe that the indigenous people are inferior, that they are bringing these “savage” people the “blessings” of civilization. Prejudice rolls down hill; it’s little wonder that Kollie feels so stuck and angry.

Dream Country is a powerful novel. The characters never get lost in its profound statements about historical injustice. The setting and the structure bring a fresh perspective to questions about why there is tension between Black Americans and Africans and between Whites and people of African descent. It’s hard to read like many novels about important ideas, but I say that in the best way possible. The book’s ideas are challenging; they’re supposed to make us uncomfortable. I hope a lot of readers discover it. It needs and deserves to be read widely.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 11 September 2018.

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Notes for bibliotherapuetic use: Recommended for readers who need to see the historical injustices of racism because they don’t understand why people of color can’t just get over it.

 

Speak No Evil, by Uzodinma Iweala

35396904When should a friend meddle in one’s life? And when should a friend stay silent? In the case of Meredith and Niru, in Uzodinma Iweala’s deeply affecting novel, Speak No Evil, it’s easy to see what Meredith should have done in retrospect. Speak No Evil is told in two parts. We first hear from Niru, who comes out to Meredith after she tried to initiate sex. Then we hear from Meredith, six years after a devastating event changed both of their families forever.

Niru’s very traditional Nigerian father cannot accept a gay son. He, like their pastor and many in their ex-patriot community in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., think of homosexuality as an abomination. Niru might have been able to keep his sexuality a secret from his parents if Meredith hadn’t installed Grindr on his phone. As a privileged white American, Meredith didn’t think of what might happen if Niru’s parents had found his phone. There are frequent moments like that, where a white teenage friend or acquaintance pressures Niru into things. They don’t think anything of staying out, drinking, or having sex because they rarely face any consequences. Niru, being black, could end up paying a much higher price than they ever imagine.

The entire time I read Niru’s half of the book, my heart was in my throat. I dreaded what might happen to a young, gay, black teenager with parents like his, with a society like ours, and friends like Meredith. When Meredith took over narrating duties, it was almost a relief. The hammer had fallen and all that was left was to somehow try to atone. The question for Meredith, is how can she ever atone? She never deliberately tried to hurt Niru. She thought she was helping; she just didn’t realize how different his circumstances were. But on the other hand, she could have listened more to Niru and thought about what it might mean to accidentally out him to his parents. If only—and then things would have turned out completely differently.

Speak No Evil is brief, but it packs a hell of an emotional wallop. This book touches deeply on so many things—coming out, friendship, unintended consequences, racism, parenting—and it does it all deftly and powerfully while still telling an engaging story about two friends who accidentally destroy one another.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.


Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend to impulsive readers who need to slow down and think through their actions.

Goodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong

27746288Ruth Young is in a difficult place. In Goodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong, fresh from the breakup of her marriage, Ruth moves back home to help her mother take care of her father as he slowly succumbs to Alzheimer’s. She worries all the time that she’s not unselfish enough to take care of her father, that she’s not doing enough to keep him healthy, that she didn’t do enough to keep her marriage together, and that perhaps she too is losing her grip on reality. This is a sad book, but it becomes strangely hopeful over time as both Ruth and her father, Howard, learn to enjoy the moments as they come.

Written as a diary, Goodbye, Vitamin covers a little more than a year of Ruth and Howard’s life. Ruth leaves her home (which is no longer really a home) in San Francisco, to move in with her parents in Los Angeles. She’s very much at loose ends in the aftermath of her marriage to her cheating husband. It’s clear she still loves him and that she needs something to do other than fret about him. So, as much as she can, she throws herself into taking care of Howard—that is, as much as he will let her.

As one might expect in a novel that centers on Alzheimer’s, memory plays a big part in Ruth and Howard’s lives. Ruth’s memories of her childhood are rosy colored, in contrast to her brothers. Her father wrote down little glimpses of Ruth’s contrary and yet highly logical way of looking at the world. Unfortunately, the longer Ruth lives with her parents, the more she realizes that she overlooked a lot of her father’s bad behavior. Meanwhile, as Howard’s memory goes, he becomes more like his daughter when she was a child. They share a similar quirky worldview.

I suspect that Goodbye, Vitamin is going to make a lot of readers ugly cry. It hits right at the heart of the confusion, anxiety, and emotional burdens that arise when children take on caring for their parents. The reversal of children taking care of parents is difficult, especially for Ruth who only had to keep an eye out for herself until she moved back in with her parents and doesn’t feel especially competent at even that much. But the way that Goodbye, Vitamin shows her growth as a person who can finally let go of worrying about what might go wrong to enjoy the moment.

Goodbye, Vitamin is one of the most graceful books I’ve read. It is incredibly deft in the way it plays on our heartstrings as Ruth grows as a person and loses some of her innocence in regards to her very human father. What I like most about this book is the way that life lessons are folded into the book’s subtext; it does not beat its readers over the head with morals. I frequently laughed at the absurdities of life in the Young household, often enough that I managed to avoid the almost unavoidable ugly crying this book might have elicited.


Note for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for children who find themselves in the position of taking care of their ailing parents.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

19322250Personhood is complicated. There is the person we present to our family, who might be the same as the person we present to our friends, who is definitely no the person we present to our bosses. Behind all those people is the person we are to ourselves. But what if, that person underneath hates themselves? In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, one might think that surviving a Japanese POW camp in the Thai jungle would be conflict enough. Instead, many of the characters torment themselves with wondering if they’re good or bad people. This novel richly deserves all the accolades it has won because it provides so much food for thought about who we are, who we think we are, and who other people think we are.

Everyone thinks Dorrigo Evans is a hero, except Dorrigo himself. He doesn’t like who he is. He’s not affectionate with his children. He cheats on his wife. He’s not a brilliant surgeon. But everyone outside his family considers him a hero because he helped his men when they were kept in a Japanese POW camp for years. Dorrigo was the ranking officer and only qualified doctor. In harrowing circumstances, he tried to keep as many of his men alive for as long as possible. Dorrigo tortures himself by seeking happiness at the same time he feels he doesn’t deserve it.

Meanwhile, Dorrigo is contrasted with two of his guards. There is the Japanese colonel who ordered the men to work without rest, food, or medicine while ordering beatings for real and imagined faults. Yet, after the war, Nakamura tells himself over and over that he was a devoted subject of the Emperor, who only did what was necessary for his country. Then there is the Korean guard who carried out Nakamura’s sadistic orders. This guard does not lie to himself, as such. Instead, Choi Sang-min tells himself:

For when he was a guard, he lived like an animal, he behaved as an animal, he understood as an animal, he thought as an animal. And he understood that such an animal was the only human thing he had ever been allowed to be. (290*)

It’s hard to say who is right, if anyone is actually right. By the end of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I think we could say that all versions of a person are real. The problems arise when those versions are out of harmony with each other.

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Three Australian POWs who were forced to build the Burma-Thailand Railway by their Japanese captors.
(Image via Australia War Memorial)

The tension between who these men think they are and who they present to the rest of the world is brilliantly illustrated by Dorrigo and Nakamura’s love of poetry. Throughout his life, Dorrigo reads and recites poetry. The words help him express, at least to himself, his complicated emotional life. Nakamura, on the other hand, uses poetry to reassure himself that he is not a barbarian. In addition to this use of poetry, the haiku at the beginning of each section serve as knotty kōan to think about while we chew over the book and its subtext. They don’t immediately make sense but, once I passed each section, the haiku meaning unfolded so that I could feel a bit of the love of poetry Dorrigo and Nakamura have. And, if I’m honest with myself in a way neither of these characters are, understanding the haiku makes me feel very smart.

I finished The Narrow Road to the Deep North on Sunday and I’m still thinking about it. Like all great books, it has so much to say that I’m not done with it even though I’ve finished the last page. This book covers the nature of heroism, the will to survive, the banality of life after great hardship, post-traumatic stress disorder, the varieties of love, and so much more. This book pummeled me in the best way. This review barely scratches the surface of the book. I want to recommend it to a ton of readers so that I have someone to share my pummeling with.


* Quote is from the 2013 trade paperback by Vintage International.