Wednesday, 18 January 2017

On The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Lesley Downer

On the Narrow Road to the Deep North by Lesley Downer
First published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in 1989. Republished by Endeavour Press in July 2015.

Featured in Cover Characteristics: Stairs

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How I got this book:
Downloaded when mentioned in an Endeavour Press newsletter.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1689 Matsuo Basho, Japan’s greatest poet, set out on his last and longest journey, to the remote northern provinces. His moving account, rich in strange and sometimes comic encounters along the road, is the most famous and much loved work in Japanese literature. Three hundred years later, inspired by Basho’s writing and her passion for Japan, Lesley Downer set off in his footsteps. Walking and hitchhiking towards the Sacred Mountains with their legendary hermit priests, meeting people who had never seen a Westerner and dining on flowers and sautéed grasshoppers, she discovered a world which many Japanese believe vanished centuries ago.

Like Richard Flanagan's similarly titled Burma railroad novel, The Narrow Road To The Deep North, Downer's book owes its naming to Matsuo Basho's ancient travel memoir. The famous Japanese poet inspired her to follow in his footsteps across the rural north of the country and this fascinating book is her record of the journey.

I love the idea of visiting Japan myself, especially the country outside of Tokyo which is completely different to the ultra-modern city. On The Narrow Road To The Deep North reveals some of the mysteries of the culture and also describes important historical events that took place in the places Downer visits. I appreciated the clever intertwining of the three main journeys: that of Downer herself, Basho and his companion Sora some three hundred years previously, and the almost mythical heroes Benkei and Yoshitsune in whose footsteps Basho himself was following. The inclusion of Basho's haiku is an inspired touch. I don't think I had read any of his work before and enjoyed the dual visions of places which often had hardly changed in the intervening centuries. This book is a great history lesson as well as a travel memoir.

A Western woman travelling alone is an incredibly unusual sight in rural Japan so we readers get to see the varying local reactions to their visitor. I was amazed at the poverty of these village communities as I had believed all of Japan to be an affluent nation. The landscapes, once away from the concrete towns, sound incredibly beautiful and I was frequently envious as another footpath sign pointed out into the mountains. Downer's writing really brings her journey to life and her love for Japan shines through. I would highly recommend On The Narrow Road To The Deep North to travellers, walkers, poets and history buffs.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Lesley Downer / Biography and memoir / Books from England

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