The Intelligent General Audience



Richard Flanagan, Man Booker International Prize Winner, 2014


In my way of thinking the intelligent general audience refers to just about everyone.  It is also the stated intention of the Man Booker Prize International’s committee of judges. Once a book is chosen as the winner, it will always deserve my interest, and in most cases, an immediate order from Amazon. The Best Food Ever Book Club is nearly always game to read the top pick of the esteemed judges. In short, the Booker Prize is a stamp of approval. It is designed by its very nature, to put great books into the scattered framework of our attention. How do we choose the books we read? If Amazon, or my local bookstore has failed to put a selection before me that is truly aligned with my tastes, I will turn to the experts and look at authors who have won prizes. As with Hollywood, it is a great boon to be nominated. It is a matter of course for me, if I have already read the Booker prize winner, to browse the short list and then the long one. Sometimes, after reading those great novels that nearly won, I find myself in passionate disagreement with the judges. It can be rather like Figure Skating contests; it has to be subjective to some degree, particularly when the field is ripe with excellence. If I were ever selected as a judge, it would be a happy day for me indeed. While others might complain about having to read so many books, I would proclaim, “I can’t do anything. I have to read!”


The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan won the coveted award for 2014. Born in Tasmania in 1961, Flanagan spent twelve years crafting this masterful work. His writing is so vivid; his ability to put the reader right in the scene made for some grueling nights for our book club. The protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, once a captive of the Japanese army has the great misfortune to be enlisted to work on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. Their inhumane treatment of prisoners is regrettably, all too prevalent. Never before in my life have I read descriptions of atrocities with more turning of the head and knotting of the stomach. I found myself getting thoroughly depressed. Man’s inhumanity to man is nothing new to me but never before has it been described in a manner so profoundly real. Flanagan puts you in the sensibilities of the prisoners. You want to get away, but you cannot.

The story shifts between Dorrigo’s love affair with his uncle’s young wife. It was another case of being captive, but this time by desire. As he recalls various times with young Amy, he also continually fails to let us forget who she is and how flawed he must be to have gotten himself involved with her in the first place. He can’t avoid thoughts and memories of their time together any more than he can get away from his captors. This is not a story of straight up redemption. We wish it to veer in that direction, but perhaps Flanagan wanted to paint a more realistic picture. In reading about the book on the Man Booker Prize International’s website, I learned that Flanagan’s father had been a worker on the infamous narrow road. He survived his experience and died on the day his son finished the novel which was twelve years in the making.  The writing is very vivid. The prize speaks volumes, as always.

From Page 22:

“Looking back down the railway pegs, Dorrigo Evans saw that there was around them so much that was incomprehensible, incommunicable, unintelligible, undivinable, indescribable. Simple facts explained the pegs. But they conveyed nothing. What is a line, he wondered, the Line? A line was something that proceeded from one point to another-from reality to unreality, from life to hell- ‘breadthless length’, as he recalled from Euclid describing it in schoolboy geometry. A length without breadth, a life without meaning, the procession from life to death. A journey to hell.”

The Washington Post:

“Nothing since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has shaken me like this.”

The Irish Times:

“Homeric… Flanagan’s feel for language, history’s persistent undercurrent, and subtle detail sets his fiction apart. There isn’t a false note in this book.”

For much of the country, 2015 has begun with bitter cold and day after day of epic snow. Out west, we seem to veer from snow to rain. While I prefer snow, what I love most about winter is that it is so conducive to my great loves: writing, reading, skiing and fine dining. It is my hope that whatever the choice may be, the intelligent general audience finds a warm hearth, a cozy nook and a stack of books to enjoy this winter.