Australian writer Richard Flanagan won the Booker Prize on Tuesday with a visceral book about wartime brutality and its aftermath – a novel the head of the judging team said was as powerful as a kick in the stomach.
Flanagan drew on his father’s experiences as a World War II prisoner of the Japanese for “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” which centers on the Burma Death Railway, built with forced labor at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.
Named after a classic work of Japanese literature, the book is dedicated to Flanagan’s father – referred to by his prisoner number, 335 – who died at the age of 98 shortly after his son finished the manuscript.
Flanagan is the third Australian to take the award, after Thomas Keneally and Peter Carey, and his victory disappointed those who hoped to see an American win in the first year U.S. authors are eligible.
Philosopher A.C. Grayling, who chaired the panel of judges, praised the “profoundly intelligent humanity” and “excoriating” descriptions of suffering in Flanagan’s novel. He said the book, which moves from Tasmania to southeast Asia to Japan, explored “the loss of a love and then the loss of comrades” and the trauma of having to live with such an overwhelming experience.
“If you are made a hero by your country but you don’t feel like one – that is explored so wonderfully well in this novel,” he said. Grayling said it was “the sort of book that kicks you so hard in the stomach” that it is difficult to move on.
Flanagan, 53, was given his trophy and 50,000 pound ($80,000) winner’s check by Prince Charles’ wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, after a black-tie dinner in London’s medieval Guildhall. This was the first year writers of all nationalities have been eligible for the Booker, previously open only to authors from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth of dozens of former British colonies, including Australia.