Australia, Author, Book review, food, nature, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Richard Flanagan, Setting, TBR 21

‘Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry’ by Richard Flanagan


Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2021.

I have not eaten red meat for 30 years, but I consume a lot of fish. I love salmon, whether fresh, smoked or hot smoked.

I knew that when I picked up this non-fiction expose of the Tasmanian salmon industry I was toying with fire. “This is going to put me off eating salmon for life, isn’t it?” I declared when the bookseller I purchased it from told me this was the sixth copy he’d sold in a matter of hours. He just laughed and said, “Come back and let me know!”

Well, I haven’t been back yet, but the answer is exactly what I knew it would be. It’s doubtful I will eat Tasmanian farmed salmon ever again.

A thorough investigation

Written by Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan, Toxic is a no holds barred investigation into the dubious practices of farming Atlantic salmon in Tasmania, specifically the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, a body of water that separates Bruny Island from the Tasmanian mainland and which acts as the mouth of the estuaries of the Derwent and Huon Rivers and empties into the Tasman Sea.

Flanagan explains how this channel, once a renowned beauty spot and sleepy backwater, has become environmentally degraded by an industry that puts profit before all else. He also shows how the product, which is marketed as clean and healthy, is anything but. It’s an eye-opening, stomach-churning and anger-inducing read.

I regard myself as an educated person, someone who is interested in the provenance of my food and who cares deeply about nature, but Toxic has exposed the glaring omissions in my knowledge and made me realise how naive I am when it comes to buying — and eating — farmed salmon.

Here’s just a handful of things I did not know — and which greatly alarmed me:

¶  The salmon is dyed so that it appears a healthy-looking pink and is more palatable to the consumer. This dye — synthetic astaxanthin — is made from petrochemicals.

Just as you use colour swatches to choose house paint, the salmon corporations use colour swatches to choose their salmon’s colour.

¶  Farmed salmon is not necessarily good for you. That’s because the fish’s fatty profile has changed as a consequence of the diet they are fed which is plant-based, rather than fish-based, so that the salmon now contain more omega-6 oils, the so-called “bad” fats, rather than omega-3 oils, which are better for you.

¶  Salmon farming is driving deforestation because the fish are fed a plant-based diet. Fishmeal, it turns out, is too expensive to feed, so farmers source protein from other food streams to cut costs. In Tasmania, the majority of this protein is chicken-based (a revolting mix of heads, feet, intestines and so on, mainly sourced from battery hens), but the fish are also fed soy, which comes from South America.

Illegal deforestation to create new soy farms in South America, particularly in the Amazon and Cerrado, is deeply embedded in the rise of the salmon industry globally and throws a long shadow over any attempt by the local industry to present salmon as a green product.

The fish live in horrendous conditions, crammed into “feedlots” where they barely have room to swim. These lots are often stacked one on top of another in towers of up to 20 metres in height, “down which faeces and urine rain”.

The image of thousands of cows slowly suffocating to death in a smog-polluted shed would be unacceptable. The reality of thousands of salmon slowly suffocating to death on a hot day as oxygen levels collapse is less questioned.

Fish farms are noisy. They work around the clock using heavy diesel compressors to oxygenate the water. To avoid salmon stock being killed by amoebic gill disease, the fish also need to be “bathed” in giant freshwater bladders on a monthly, sometimes fortnightly, rotation. They are mechanically vacuumed out of their feedlots into the bladders, then sucked out again. And then there are all the attendant boats and the industrial lighting required to enable workers to see what they are doing, so that residents living onshore are plagued by light and noise pollution 24/7.

I could go on, but it’d be easier for me to tell you to read the book. You might end up underlining the entire thing, which is what I was tempted to do when I wasn’t feeling nauseous by the horrendous facts that pile up on top of one another like bodies in a mass grave (I make no apology for that simile).

An industry mired in secrecy

Knowing all this, the first question you might well ask is how is this legal?

Flanagan painstakingly documents the corruption at the heart of the industry, which claims to be regulated but is really mired in secrecy and cover-ups. He talks to leading scientists and activists and a host of brave people who have spoken out against the industry’s practices. It doesn’t make for pleasant or comfortable reading.

It’s thoroughly researched and completely up-to-date (there are references to things that happened as recently as March 2021), but unfortunately, Toxic doesn’t possess an index, which is infuriating if you wish to look something up afterwards. There is, however, an extensive list of references and sources.

I can’t say I am glad I read this book, because it means I can no longer in all good conscience continue to eat one of my favourite sources of protein, but it’s one of the best, and most chilling, non-fiction reads I’ve consumed in a long while.

Please note, Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry doesn’t appear to be published outside of Australia, but you can order it from readings.com.au or try bookfinder.com to source a used copy.

This is my 19h book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store last month.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Knopf, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan

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.

UK edition

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.

Lisa at ANZLitlovers loved this one too.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2020

Happy New Year everyone! I know we are all excited and hopeful that 2021 will be happy, healthier and more normal than 2020, but before we step into a brand new year I wanted to look back at what I read over the past 12 months.

I read 83 books in total, which is roughly what I read most years, the only difference being that most of the books were published in 2020. (GoodReads has helpfully listed them all here.)

I don’t normally read so many shiny new books, but in 2020 I went out of my way to support my local independent bookshop (big shout out to New Edition in Fremantle), which bravely kept its doors open all year, including during our first (and thankfully only) six-week shutdown in March/April. I made it a regular habit to visit once a week and to never leave empty-handed! (What a tough challenge — hehehe.)

Also, I think I’m still enjoying the thrill of being able to buy newly published Australian fiction after being unable to do so when I lived in London for two decades! As a consequence, I did buy a lot of  #OzLit, including everything on the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction shortlist and the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist.

My love for Irish fiction didn’t go away either. As per usual, I read all the books on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist — although I abandoned one and had previously read another in 2019, so this wasn’t a particularly difficult “challenge” to complete.

It wasn’t all new, new, new though. In the first half of the year, I embarked on a plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June in a project I dubbed #TBR2020. I actually managed to complete this — which reminds me I really ought to have done a wrap-up post.

I also participated in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer for the fourth time. And while I didn’t quite hit target, I did manage to read 17 books from my TBR — all listed here.

But that’s enough about my projects. What were the books that left a marked impression on me? Without further ado, here they are, all arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

‘Snow’ by John Banville (2020)
Set in County Wexford at Christmas in 1957, Snow is a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House. Evocative, atmospheric and full of brilliant characters, this is historical crime fiction at its finest.

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry (2019)
This story about two 50-something Irish gangsters recalling the ups and downs they have weathered over the years as drug dealers in Cork and Spain is darkly comic but with a mournful undertone.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2020)
Booker-shortlisted novel told in the second person about a well-educated Black woman from Zimbabwe who has fallen on hard times. One of the most powerful pieces of fiction I have ever read.

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan (2020)
I am yet to review this one properly, but it’s an exquisitely written tale about preserving human life at any cost at a time when everything in the natural world is being killed off. A novel full of irony, ideas and issues but is not without humour — or hope.

‘The Butchers’ by Ruth Gilligan (2020)
Unexpectedly immersive, compelling and SURREAL novel set in Ireland during the BSE crisis of 1996. It made me, a fussy carnivore, look at beef consumption in a whole new light.

‘A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline’ by Glenda Guest (2018)
Possibly my favourite book of the year, this richly layered story follows one woman’s journey from Sydney to Perth by train when she discovers she has Alzheimer’s. In Perth she hopes to make amends for a past sin. Along the way we learn about her life.

‘The Animals in That Country’ by Laura Jean McKay (2020)
Wholly original dystopian tale about a flu pandemic that allows infected people to understand what animals are saying. Terrifying, deliriously strange and blackly comic.

‘The Last of Her Kind’ by Sigrid Nunez (2006)
A totally immersive story set in New York in the late 1960s which follows the ups and downs of an unlikely friendship between two women from different ends of the social spectrum who are roommates at college.

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu (2020)
This seriously impressive debut novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out. Brash, sex-obsessed and memorable.

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ Anne Tyler (2020)
Perceptive and warm-hearted tale of a 40-something man whose dull, predictable life gets turned on its head. Tyler is a genius at writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations and this one is no exception.

I trust you have discovered some wonderful books and writers this year despite everything that has been going on around the world. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2020, I’d love to know?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2020 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

10 books, Book lists

10 favourite Australian novels of the 21st century

Earlier today — thanks to @wtb_Michael and @frippet — I discovered that the Australian Book Review is conducting a poll to discover the nation’s favourite Australian novel published in the 21st century. (You can find out more, and nominate your favourite, here.)

Taking Michael’s lead, I thought it would be fun to put together a list of my top 10 favourite Australian novels published since 2000. I published that list on Twitter, but because I know not everyone who follows this blog follows me on social media, I thought it might be helpful to publish it here.

So here is my list. The books have been arranged in chronological order, from the most recent book published. As ever, hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (2017)
Cleverly constructed tale that weaves together five interlinking stories set on one tract of land to show how humans have impacted the environment over four centuries.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands by Stephen Orr (2015)
Charming, funny and deeply moving story about three generations of the one farming family eking out a living on a remote cattle station in the Australian outback.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015)
Thought-provoking take on a dystopian world in which women are imprisoned for their involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanors.

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2013)
Booker Prize-winning novel about an Australian surgeon, haunted by a clandestine love affair, who becomes a  Japanese POW on the Burma Death Railway during the Second World War.

Floundering by Romy Ash

Floundering by Romy Ash (2012)
A woman “kidnaps” her two sons from the grandparents who are raising them and takes them on holiday by the sea one hot Australian summer — but everything isn’t quite as it seems.

Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears (2011)
Set in the 1920s and 30s, this historical novel traces the fortunes (and misfortunes) of two generations of a legendary showjumping family in rural NSW.

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Five Bells by Gail Jones (2010)
Ambitious novel comprised of several interwoven narrative threads, focussed on four individual characters as they criss-cross Sydney on a fine summer’s day.

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang (2009)
Deliciously entertaining award-winning debut novel based on the true-life story of  Edward William (E.W.) Cole, a legendary eccentric who built an amazing retail emporium in Melbourne during the 1880s.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)
Middle-class angst fest following the fall out when a man slaps a child, who is not his, for misbehaving at a family barbecue.

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2003)
A beautiful, melancholy tale about a lonely, timid nine-year-old boy being raised by his grandmother.

Have you read any of these books? Or care to share your own list of favourite Australian novels from the 21st century? 

Giveaway

Book giveaway: win Richard Flanagan’s backlist

Book-giveawayThis giveaway is now closed

Many of you will know that Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite authors. Indeed, he’s listed on my favourite authors page, where he’s been quietly sitting (not literally, of course) ever since I read The Sound of One Hand Clapping (the second novel of his that I had read, after Gould’s Book of Fish) way back in 2008. That particular novel left a lasting impression (indeed, some times I still think about it), and I’ve followed his career ever since.

I haven’t reviewed all his books on this blog (I was so stunned by his Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North that I simply couldn’t find the words to do it justice here), but I have read them all and done my fair share of championing his work on social media and elsewhere. So I was delighted (and honoured) to be commissioned to write a guide to his backlist for the Penguin website. That guide went online this morning — you can read it here — to coincide with the news that all of Flanagan’s backlist has been acquired and repackaged in the UK by Vintage Publishing.

Complete set of Richard Flanagan's novels

The exciting news is that I have a complete set of those books to give away on this blog to one lucky reader. That’s five rather glorious, if very different, novels: Death of a River Guide, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish, The Unknown Terrorist and Wanting.

To enter the prize draw, simply leave a comment below naming one of your favourite authors. The draw closes at 7pm GMT on Friday 3 June. I’ll then select the winner at random using a random number generator or some such.

Please note that because I’ll be paying the postage (and this is a hefty pile of books), the competition is only open to entrants with a UK address. Please note you can only enter once. Multiple entrants will be disqualified.

Good luck!

Please note, if you’ve not commented here before your comment will be held in moderation. Don’t worry: I’ll approve it next time I log on!

UPDATE — TUESDAY 7 JUNE
Apologies for the delay in drawing a winner of this prize: I’ve been rather busy and this has been my first chance to sit down and do it. There were 18 eligible entries [Rosie Amber, Evening Scribbles, KirkMC, David Riley, Kaggysbookishramblings, Paul Cheney, Chris A, Snoakes 7001, Victoria, Alison P, Tracey, Booker Talk, Sophie, Dawn, Simon H, Orangepekoereviews, Ben & Rhodri] I used an online random number generator to select the lucky winner. The number chosen was 12. That means the winner is — drum roll please — Booker Talk! Many congratulations! I’ll be in touch soon to find out your mailing address. Thanks to everyone who entered — and commiserations if you missed out.