Thanks to the Booker Prize, Richard Flanagan is probably the only Tasmanian novelist British readers are likely to have heard of. His reworking of the life of the Australian hero ‘Weary’ Dunlop, a doctor who became a prisoner of war on the notorious Burma Death Railway, in The Narrow Road to the Deep North was a winner of a traditional kind of literary storyteller that has recently become extinct. It seems appropriate that his eighth novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, is also about extinction, both personal and environmental.
Tasmania is burning, and as its cornucopia of flora and fauna is wiped out, three children gather to decide whether to let their exhausted 86-year-old mother Francie die, or demand intervention by modern medicine. Anna and her brother Terzo, who are successful professionals living in Australia, initially want to let her go, but Tommy, who has been their mother’s main carer, does not. In the course of the novel, they swap positions. Already bereaved, they carry a burden of guilt that will be familiar to many.
Francie’s ‘enforced selflessness’ as wife and mother has, Anna believes, cost her ‘a terrible price in terms of a professional life, a public life, a private life realising her full possibilities’. Her ‘waking dreams’ of the past are vivid, even when cut off from the beauty of the natural world she loves, and are an embarrassment to her more sophisticated children.
The only member of her family to give Francie genuine love and compassion is Tommy, her stammering, chaotic, emotionally damaged son. He is powerless to protest effectively, but the fear of being thought ‘a bad person’ makes Anna and Terzo insist that their mother be kept artificially alive. Even though she begs to be allowed to die, they choose to save her from death ‘only by infinitely prolonging her dying’.
Written with Flanagan’s characteristic mix of humanism and emotional insight, this uneven novel could have been powerful and moving. Its artistic problem is that layered into it is Anna’s conviction that she herself is vanishing, losing first a finger, then a knee in an extended metaphor that, true to the tropes of magic realism, drives inexorably towards parrots: specifically, orange-bellied ones that are disappearing in Tasmania, thanks to the destruction of their habitat. Anna waits for people to notice that she is disappearing. They don’t, although it is a condition that is catching: her son Gus, obsessed by gaming, vanishes to the extent that only a pair of thumbs pressing buttons on his console are left, raising a rare smile in those of us familiar with this problem too.
Flanagan’s gift is not, however, for Kafkaesque fantasy; what could have made two very different novellas is mashed into one 282-page novel. When Anna finally realises that ‘they had not been expelled from Eden… they had expelled Eden from themselves’, even the most sympathetic reader may find themselves thinking: I couldn’t care less.
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