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.
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.
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.