Fiction – hardcover; Random House Australia; 252 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
There’s something quite ironic about wanting a book called Wanting so much that when you finally get your grubby little mitts on it you find you’re not really in the right frame of mood to read it — and perhaps you didn’t want it that much after all. But having cajoled the Australian publisher into sending me a review copy on the basis that I’m an expat Australian I couldn’t exactly leave this one on the pile indefinitely, and so I recently unearthed it and began to read…
In this novel Richard Flanagan returns to his state of birth, Tasmania, and sets his story in the 1830s. We’ve been here before, of course, in Flanagan’s third novel, Gould’s Book of Fish, but this one has a dual narrative set in England in 1851, which adds an extra level of complexity.
There are famous people in this book, too, real characters from history that many readers will be familiar with: Sir John Franklin, who was governor of Tasmania between 1836 and 1843, but is better known for his exploration of North America and the Arctic, including his ill-fated expedition to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage; and Charles Dickens, the English novelist, who was briefly obsessed with Arctic exploration and staged a play, The Frozen Deep, in Manchester in collaboration with Wilkie Collins, and cast himself in the star role.
A third historical figure, much less known, is the young aboriginal girl, Mathinna, who was “adopted” by the Franklins in Tasmania as a kind of experiment to prove that the “savage” could be “tamed” and “civilised”. It’s an experiment which fails dismally, not because of any wrong doing by Mathinna, but because the social constructs and beliefs of the time were stacked against her.
These twin narratives, 12 years apart, are told in alternating chapters and are linked by Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane. She knew the novelist Dickens and enlisted him to defend her missing husband’s reputation when he was accused, in the press, of having resorted to cannibalism during his Northwest Passage expedition from whence he’d never returned.
But despite a book peopled by historical figures, Flanagan points out in his Author’s Note that “this novel is not a history, nor should it be read as one”. He adds:
The stories of Mathinna and Dickens, with their odd but undeniable connection, suggested to me a meditation on desire — the cost of its denial, the centrality and force of its power in human affairs. That, and not history, is the true subject of Wanting.
Taking this into account, the book is a superb exploration of this theme. The Dickens portrayed here is slightly crazed and very lonely, caught in a loveless marriage which mirrors “the cold whiteness of the Northwest Passage”.
He continued with his marriage. He continued to believe that, like everything else in his life, it would be righted by the sheer force of his will. He had trouble staying in the same room as his wife, but he stayed nevertheless. He continued to argue in his writing for domesticity, and tried not to think that perhaps this was the very thing in his life that had escaped him, that perhaps it did not really exist, or, if it did, it was just one more prison bar.
[…] she spoke in a manner that was neither white nor black, but in a strange way with strange words that made no sense to anyone. Who was this girl? Why did she talk this way, why this strange wavering voice?
At times this is a heart-breaking read, but there was something about Wanting that didn’t really gel with me — and I’m at odds to put my finger on exactly what this was.
Having read three of Flanagan’s previous novels, I consider him one of the finest writers in Australia, which is why I was eager to read this latest offering. There’s no doubt that the scene setting is vivid, that the characterisation is strong, that the writing is typically beautiful (although he seems to have lost his penchant for overly long sentences in this one), and yet it didn’t particularly “grab” me in the same way as The Sound of One Hand Clapping or the The Unknown Terrorist did.
And maybe it’s the dual narrative that lost me, because while both strands are excellent stories in their own right, putting them together in the one book doesn’t allow enough room for either to properly breathe. No sooner would I get to grips with one story, than I’d have to flip a switch in my brain and start reading about the next, and then do it all over again when I got to the end of the chapter. This makes for a slightly bumpy read rather than a streamlined one.
All the same, if you are intrigued by either Franklin or Dickens, or maybe even both, you will probably very much enjoy this book — although you may not necessarily like what you find out about either character.