‘Death of a River Guide’ by Richard Flanagan

Death-of-a-river-guide

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 326 pages; 2004.

Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite authors. I’ve read and enjoyed all his novels — The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (2001), The Unknown Terrorist (2006) and Wanting (2008) — but had kept his first novel for a special occasion. And what better occasion to read Death of a River Guide (1994) than Australian Literature Month?

A brave and audacious debut

As a debut novel, Death of a River Guide is a brave and audacious one.

It is told from the perspective of Aljaz Cosini — half Tasmanian, half Slovenian — who is drowning in Tasmania’s Franklin River during a rather adventurous, dangerous and ultimately tragic river expedition that he is leading. As Aljaz tries to wriggle free from the rock which has ensnared him under the white water, scenes from his life — good, bad and ugly — come rushing back to him like fragments of a dream.

In an unusual twist (I hate to use the term “magic realism” but I guess that’s what it is), Aljaz also gets to experience scenes from the lives of his parents, lovers and forebears, helping him to understand his place in the world.

Bite-sized flashbacks

Interspersed with this narrative thread, which is composed largely of bite-sized flashbacks, is a second storyline that follows the white-water rafting expedition that Aljaz is leading. The expedition is a commercial tour for stressed-out executives, nurses and other full-time workers, and Aljaz, who is accompanied by a younger, more enthusiastic river guide, is a bit cynical about it all.

The job doesn’t pay particularly well, but he’s a drifter and will take anything that is going to keep his head above water — pun not intended. He has been a river guide before, but is a bit out of practice, for reasons that are explained during one of his many flashbacks.

The novel is heavy on detail — the descriptions of the river and the rainforests of Tasmania are particularly vivid and beautiful — and peopled with a seemingly endless cast of wonderful characters, including Aljaz’s convict ancestors and the tiresome people he leads on the trip.

Fast-paced narrative

But this is not at expense of narrative tension which becomes heightened the further you get into the book. That’s because you know from the outset that Aljaz is drowning, but you don’t know how this tragic predicament came about — and you have to propel yourself through more than 250 pages before you find out what happens on that fateful fourth day of the trip.

Death of a River Guide is a lovely rich and engrossing novel, brimming with multiple storylines about history, fate, identity and nature. It’s also a wonderful tale that contrasts Tasmania’s dark past as a penal colony with its new role as a wilderness destination. It’s a captivating read — and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

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7 thoughts on “‘Death of a River Guide’ by Richard Flanagan

  1. I think this might be the only Flannagan book I have yet to read. It will be sad when I am finished them because he is one of my favourite authors. This once sounds beautiful, he’s at his best when he’s describing the beautiful wilderness of Tasmania.

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  2. I have never heard of him Kim, isnt that awful. The idea of reading about someone who is drowning freaks me out somewhat and yet this sounds like it could be quite compelling and tense which could make for very interesting reading. The bit that slightly puts me off is the heavy description. I am learning that I prefer subtle yet telling over spelling everything out.

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  3. He was shortlisted for the Booker in 2001, which is how I came to be introduced to him. He’s a brilliant writer. And please don’t let the heavy description put you off — he doesn’t spell everything out, he just describes the scenery so beautifully and brings the river and the rainforest to life, so perhaps I should have said he has rich, lavish prose…

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  4. I remember loving Gould’s Book of Fish but I couldn’t tell you what it was about — and my crap “review” doesn’t really help 😉 I found Wanting slightly disappointing, but it certainly hasn’t put me off wanting to read whatever he comes up with next.

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  5. This sounds really interesting! I know I’ve said that pretty much about every book and author you’ve written about this month, but I truly feel that way.
    Not a lot of Australian literature is translated into Finnish, so I have huge gaps in my knowledge. I’ve really enjoyed Austalian Literature month and I’ve picked up a lot reading tips. Thank you so much!

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