Fiction – hardcover; Knopf Australia; 302 pages; 2020.
Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, is an exquisitely written tale about preserving human life at any cost at a time when everything in the natural world is being killed off by human activity. It’s a book brimming with irony, ideas and issues but is not without humour — or hope.
Holding on to a mother’s love
The book’s central focus is on three adult siblings who do everything in their power to ensure their aged mother, 87-year-old Francie, is kept alive in a Hobart hospital after she experiences a bleed on the brain.
But there are divisions between Francie’s three children — Anna and Terzo, who want to keep Francie alive, and Tommy, who would prefer she slip away naturally — and it is these different viewpoints which provide the necessary tension to make this deeply thoughtful novel a proper page-turner.
The story is largely told from Anna’s point of view. A successful architect who left Tasmania to pursue her career, she has a complicated relationship with her son, Gus, who steals from her. But this is the least of her concerns because early on in the novel Anna notices that her finger has disappeared; it is simply no longer there. Later, she “loses” a knee.
This becomes a metaphor for emotional loss, but it also seems that the more determined Anna becomes to keep her mother alive, the more of Anna herself disappears. (Admittedly, when I first heard that there was an aspect of “magic realism” to Flanagan’s novel I wasn’t sure it would work for me, but rest assured, as crazy as it sounds, it feels entirely realistic; I never once suspended belief.)
Anna’s brother Terzo, a venture capitalist who also moved to the mainland decades ago to make something of himself, acts as her enabler. The pair work together, using their power and influence and money and sheer inability to believe that death could come knocking at their mother’s door, to keep Francie alive.
The naysayer in the corner is younger brother Tommy, a sensitive artistic type, who is viewed by his siblings as a failure because he’s never gone out and explored the world. He’s the devoted son who has stayed behind; the one who sees that it would be kinder to let his mother — unhappy and miserable and no longer able to enjoy life — pass away.
Loss of the natural world
Intertwined with this largely domestic drama is the larger issue of mass extinction in our natural world. This is reflected in a storyline about efforts to save the rare orange-bellied parrot — “We do everything we can to keep them alive, and yet they keep dying” — a conservation project that Anna becomes involved with.
Sometimes she thought the birds did it out of spite, that they willed themselves to death because of their weariness with the world, with the failing efforts of their human saviours. Because the world is so against them.
And against this backdrop of a chaotic world where Nature is under threat and so many species are vanishing because of habitat loss and climate change, the only thing that makes Anna numb to the realities is to lose herself in her phone. And every time something terrible happens or Anna knows that she is going to hear bad news about her mother, she picks up her phone and scrolls and swipes and likes and clicks.
Perhaps the more the essential world vanished, the more people needed to fixate on the inessential world.
Major issues of our time
The power of The Living Sea of Waking Dreams lies in the way it gently teases out major issues of our times in a multi-layered narrative that riffs on so many recurring themes — love, death, beauty, power, motherhood, feminism, family bonds, siblings, vanishings and distraction. It brings to mind Anne Tyler and Charlotte Wood, two writers who focus on the domestic and the minutiae of people’s lives, but Flanagan takes it a step further by writing in such a perceptive way that it shines a light on bigger societal issues.
There’s so much more I could say about this wonderful novel. I read it back in September and took copious notes, but couldn’t bring myself to review it at the time, not quite knowing where to start. Penning this now, I’m acutely aware I am struggling to articulate the book’s strengths or even the way it made me see the world anew.
I always greet a new Richard Flanagan novel with much fanfare, and this one was no exception. I even signed up to an online book launch, hosted by the Wheeler Centre, and watched an interview with him on the 7.30 Report (a current affairs news programme on ABC TV here in Australia).
I read it back to back with Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through, in which a terminally ill cancer patient decides to take her own life, and couldn’t help but compare how the characters in Flanagan’s novel have an entirely different take on death. This might sound like bleak subject matter, and sometimes it feels unbelievably cruel, but this isn’t a book without hope; I came away from it feeling that it’s important for us all to reconnect with nature and with each other and to care for the world in whatever small ways we can.