Writing and reading for pleasure – The Narrow Road to the Deep North | Douglas Burcham

Douglas Burcham continues his series of articles on writing and reading for pleasure with a follow up to last month’s post – A picture is worth a thousand words?


The Narrow Road to the Deep North

In my last post I mentioned the start I had made to reading Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Man Booker prize winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North and the pictures he had created for me early in the book and my expectations of more.

The book took me three weeks to read so no easy light read. The reason I asked Mick to make this short post (when I started!) is because the book is one of the better reads I have come across in the last two years and well illustrates the idea of a picture being worth a thousand words. In this case, several written scenes creating vivid pictures, of which many are horrific. I also needed to write my thoughts about the book down on paper and what better way to share them as well.

Just because I am not in publishing mode at present does not mean I am not in learning mode. Again, following Stephen King’s advice, I am reading to become a better writer and there are many pointers in the book for self-publishing authors.

A few negatives against the mainstream publisher for a start…

  1. The book lacks proper punctuation for dialogue with the absence of inverted commas. After reading so much advice for writers proposing to self-publish to get punctuation right, this represents an opportunity for self-publishers to do better than Random House has managed to do. The e-book from an inspection of the early chapter review pages is no different.
  2. The book appears to have missed a thorough copy edit, often lacking spaces between words, commas and other little points of detail self-publishers are urged they must get right. I cannot understand what is going on in the presentation of this book. I would love to avoid the pain of detailed checking, but dare not.
  3. The source of the title and the cover design are pretty obscure and to me do little to sell the book. No doubt the book will sell well simply because it won the Man Booker Prize. The paperback cover design is little different. Looking again at the book on the Waterstones shelves, it is subtly different than many other current fiction bestsellers but it lacks the sheer “bull in the china shop” cover design attraction of the original hardback version of The Casual Vacancy.

The positives…

Overall this is a strong, mostly deep, fiction read using a mix of love, war and marriage background and scenes. The book does flit around between times and places, which has annoyed those readers who like a book written in sequence and place order. I am happy because it shows again, as with Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, my structure of writing in the same way can be a prizewinner.

In a post in 2014 about book reviews, I made a point about books eliciting a range of comments from one to five star. Out of 766 Amazon.com reviews last week, I note 488 or 64% at five star, 158 or 21 % at four star and 68 at one and two star  9%. I had to work hard to reach 100 pages in the book, and looking at the 1 and 2 star ratings other readers found the same concerns and did not persist. Perhaps what is missing is a similar strong hook for readers in the early pages like Kate Atkinson’s encounter with Hitler in Life after Life. 

In my writing I have been advised to write a strong first paragraph. The opening paragraph struck bells with me with the special atmosphere in a church, with sunlight and parents, but this proved insufficient to carry me easily past 100 pages.

Some reviewers think the love and marriage aspects are rather fickle, but something light is needed in a book like this with a really difficult technical background of war to strike a balance and provide a contrast. Perhaps the book could have been a little shorter with less on the non war elements. I usually want a shorter book, but not so much in this book.

For some time I have sat on my perch saying I prefer to read war stories, especially with description of WW1 and WW2 in non fiction, rather than fiction. Richard Flanagan has knocked me off my perch because he has written some graphic pictures from the viewpoint of different characters. Indeed, a couple of pictures were so graphic that I had to stop reading about them in my usual late night reading slot and pick the book up the following day. He has managed to seer memories of horrors across my mind. I have read quite widely about the construction of the Burma Siam railway and of the conflict with the Japanese. In creating some half a dozen key pictures in writing scenes, Richard Flanagan has conveyed both the horror and also the Japanese psyche more successfully than many of the other non fiction books I have read by getting under the skin of history.

A slightly amended version of my recent Amazon review written under my publishing names is shown below listing other positives. 

Strong writing well worth its prize winning status — 5 Stars.

6th January 2014

Cover 2/5– I heard the cover designer on BBC Radio 4 talking about the cover and her work being praised. I cannot say the cover gave me any incentive to buy this book and the title is far too long despite the source of the title and cover design being revealed in the book.

Contents – I purchased the book as a Christmas present for myself. I usually try to reach 100 pages of any book that comes recommended. After 50 pages I could have put it aside, but on reaching 100 pages the book started to find its legs. There are some very good images created; of stakes in the ground going into the distance for the proposed route and the beauty of necks to a Japanese psychopath.

As a writer I have been told to write with good grammar and punctuation. If I publish I should have a good copy editor to go over my text in detail for errors. I wonder what happened in the production for publishing with this book.  It is a niggling distraction to some otherwise good writing. I read on…

22nd January 2015 

I finished the book this morning. Despite the lack of proper punctuation and proofreading, I found the book a powerful and strong reading experience, even forcing me to stop reading until the following day in a couple of places because his wartime descriptions were so graphic. I regard books like this as semi fiction, the book being based on the wartime experiences of the author’s father, and I suspect much more of his life.

Although I have read widely in fiction and non fiction about the WW2 conflict with Japan and I generally prefer factual accounts, the history told here from several viewpoints was both shocking and interesting because it gave me a better understanding of the Japanese psyche.

This is my review based on my own reading criteria for a good read:-

  • Engrossing and interesting – Past 100 pages, more so becoming a strong page turner not knowing what would come next or where the story would end up.
  • Enjoyment and entertainment – Given the subject, this is not a book to score highly under this heading. There was enjoyment in holding and reading the book as a heavy hard cover rather than an e-book.
  • Emotional – I became bound up with the characters’ lives in war and in love and marriage, pre and post war. Memories of the film Dr. Zhivago sprang to my mind when the book neared its end.
  • Educational – A great deal of interesting new information and commentary about WW2 and the war with Japan.
  • Ease of reading – The strong, solid writing was not the easiest of reads, but the writing flowed well despite some very deep descriptive and different time frames. It did make the book hard to put down.

All too often I find good books become ordinary books when given fairy tale endings. For me the ending was well-crafted with a twist in the tail, which gave rise to one of the few laughs I had while reading the book. Given time, I will need to reflect whether this book will displace another book in my top twelve lifetime reads.

Often Man Booker prizewinning books fall short of expectations but for me this one did not. It is one to be kept on my bookshelves. Well worth a read and for me a re-read in due course. Despite the setting out issues, it is well worth a 5 star rating.

This book will go on my select bookshelf of books to aspire to write like and to help set a high quality bar for my own writing. After finishing I started to read The Shawshank Redemption.


The Shawshank Redemption

As a contrast after reading The Narrow Road, on a more cheerful note and after writing my last post, I purchased a used copy of Stephen King’s collection of novella length stories including Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption on e-Bay.

I read the novella of 113 pages, and memories of the film flooded back. The film version is reasonably true to the book. I did not have to create new pictures because the film had already done this for me. I liked the viewpoint of a storyteller. Stephen King has expressed in various literary interviews and posts his liking for the novella format but he is sad the format does not appear to sell well. The story is well told, tight and straight to the point without lots of padding. It is an excellent example for those writing to self-publish. The story in the The Narrow Road to the Deep North could have been expanded and told across 429 pages.

This is my Amazon review based on my own reading criteria for a good read:-

  • Engrossing and interesting – Despite knowing the story and punch line, the book kept my interest because it is tightly written.
  • Enjoyment and entertainment – It’s an enjoyable and brought back good memories of the film.
  • Emotional – It reinforced my wish never to go to prison; confirmed by reading about 21st Century prison life in Jeffrey Archer’s Prison Diaries and a hundred years earlier in Arthur and George by Julian Barnes.
  • Educational – It adds nothing more to the film adaption.
  • Ease of reading – The strong, solid writing fits the story well into the novella format and has much to commend it. It’s a refreshing change from King’s other books when I often feel a full page of text could have been said in one sentence.

It is one for my bookshelves and I will read the other novella length stories in the book as new material.

Incidentally, I have another memory here of the amazing You Tube video of Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire, dancing to the Bee Gees’ Staying Alive, something that often brightens up my days. My wife would love me to be able to dance like these two.

Compare and Contrast

Yes, the context of so many old school exam questions. This occurred to me after writing all of the above. If I compare and contrast these two books, I find surprisingly more in common than I would have expected and I notice both adhere to a five-act structure with a well defined beginning, middle and ending.

  1. Freedom before incarceration
  2. Being jailed, often in solitary confinement / being compelled to work in hard labour
  3. Bad conditions with descriptions and reasons
  4. Release
  5. Afterlife

Note: – Both have a twist in the tail. One is violent and the other is ever so subtle.

One book is 429 pages the other is 113 pages, expanded into a 140 minute film. On release, many thought the film was too long! The difference is that The Shawshank Redemption is tight writing and Flanagan on the other hand has been much more expansive, ironically in Stephen King’s usual long-winded style. Another lesson is that only a hundred or so pages of good story are necessary for a well regarded film, so you writers save your time and write novellas if you want to write books for film! The basic plots are also quite simple; this is another lesson for me. I need to curb complexity in the main skeleton of my stories.

“What are you writing?”

I’m often asked this question and a person on a course advised me how I should answer:

Tell them what you would say if they had stepped on a bus and it was moving away.

An old bus without doors, no doubt! My own writing in summary is:-

“Unusual fiction.”

“Me doing impossible things.”

“My main character Henry does what I would love to do verging on the impossible and beyond.”

For The Narrow Road to the Deep North … here are my 3, 4, 15 and 15 word summaries:

“Love and War.”

“Love and horrid history.”

“A love story with a surgeon being forced to work on the Burma Siam Railway.”

Primarily, more a love story than a war story. This may be a surprise to those who have read the book. It does not work the other way around if you primarily consider it a war story.

“A subtle love story with a surgeon showing the fall horrors of working on the Burma Siam Railway in WW2.”

For The Shawshank Redemption … here are my 2 and 20 word summaries:

“Prisoner’s Revenge.”

“A story of survival and persistence of a resourceful banker in prison for a crime of passion he didn’t commit.”

Overall I believe reading the two books has proven the wisdom of Stephen King’s advice about reading and helping writers to improve their writing. I must go back over all my novellas to see if their story lines can be summed up in 2, 4, 5, 15 and 20 word summaries as an attractor and simple book skeleton. So much for a short post again!

My next posts – Bookshops with a reading theme.

Hopefully the first one will be Waterstones (with a large dreamy Christmas Book token in monetary value to spend) — so much better than an e-book!


DouglasDouglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney of TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013 his characters, including his fantasy twin brother Alexander, took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighters with other writing friends. They self-published a book of short stories “Ywnwab!” in September 2013. In their 2014 and 2015 Writing Plans, by working in 18,000 word bites, Douglas, along with the Allrighters, are trying to convert a million words of draft writing completed in January 2014 into several reader friendly books totalling 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes. Progress in 2014 has been slow as Douglas and the Allrighters prefer new creative writing to editing and restructuring existing writing.

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