A great journey

I’ve been very lucky in recent times to have read three very good books. I’m a fussy reader. I’m reading all the time, and often will be reading 2-3 books at once. There are few books I don’t take pleasure from – I ditch them early if they’re no good – but at the same time I’m a critical reader. There are few books that pass muster on all counts.

The first of these books was The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. It was a book that got big raps when it was released last year, and created a bit of a stir. I tend to be suspicious about hype like that. It gets trendy sometimes to like a book and to talk about it. Everyone needs to read it because everyone else has. I’m very much the opposite of that – I’ve yet to touch a Harry Potter book for example, and doubt I ever will.

So for over a year I didn’t bother with Harry Quebert. When I finally did pick it up it was randomly browsing in my local library. Gee, I’m glad I did. Great story, told in a novel way, with truly excellent writing. The book is a star, and I raced through it – all 700 odd pages. Bound to be a movie, and should be a good one.

I wrote about The Middle Parts of Fortune the week before last. Much recommended.

The final book of the trifecta is the best of them I think. The other day in the local K-Mart I saw The Narrow Road to the Deep North being sold for a discount price, and bought it. This is the Booker prize-winning book by Richard Flanagan.

I’ve not finished it yet. I’m about 2/3’s through and I think it is a stupendous good book. It may even be one of those rare books you come to call great.

This is a story that is close to any informed, half-engaged Aussie. It sprawls a bit, but at the heart of it is the tale of Australian POW’s put to work on the Thai railways in the most horrific and inhumane conditions. These are vividly depicted in language that is sensitive and often lyrical, but with the humour too for which the Aussie digger was renowned. What shines is poignant humanity – the men suffer terribly, they work till they’re broken, they die with shit running down their legs or from a mass of suppurating ulcers. They work together, they share, they hope little, but they endure. And it all feels so true.

Flanagan has had an illustrious career as a novelist, but this is by far his best, and the book I reckon he’s been saving himself to write. His father was there, he was a POW that worked on the railway. I’m sure many of the stories, the incidents, even perhaps the characters, have come from the senior Flanagan – who died on the day the book was published.

It’s more than just a book on war. It’s much more ambitious than that. There’s a haunting love affair, and at the centre of it a protagonist – who recalls Weary Dunlop – struggling to make sense of it as he nears his death. In scope and scale this is the most Russian of Australian novels, but in attitude and spirit very Australian.

I think this is a great book, and I’m grateful that it has been finally written. Every Australian should read  it, and I expect in years to come it will become a staple in the school syllabus.

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