Novel of the week: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan
In Flanagan’s eighth novel a woman lies dying in a hospital as bushfires rage in Australia
Richard Flanagan’s eighth novel, which received rave reviews when it was published in Australia last autumn, is a story of “extinction, both personal and environmental”, said Amanda Craig in The Spectator. It is set in the summer of 2019-20, when raging bushfires were wiping out Tasmania’s “cornucopia of flora and fauna”.
In a Hobart hospital lies 86-year-old Francie, close to being wiped out herself. With her are her three grown-up children: successful professionals Anna and Terzo, and “stammering, chaotic” Tommy. Francie wants to die, but only Tommy respects this wish; Anna and Terzo persuade the doctors to artificially prolong their mother’s life. With these parallel ecological and human storylines, I don’t think Flanagan wants to suggest that Planet Earth should be taken off life-support, said Sam Leith in The Daily Telegraph. Rather, this is a story “about disconnection – us from each other; us from the sacredness of the world around us”. Flanagan, who won the Booker Prize for his 2013 novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is a “fine enough writer” to make the two themes cohere in this “fiercely well-observed” novel.
What he doesn’t get away with are the “rather pointless dashes of magic realism”, said Allan Massie in The Scotsman. Partway through, “Anna finds bits falling off her body: first a finger, then a knee”. Nobody else seems to notice. This is a reflection, it seems, of humanity’s obliviousness to calamity, but the device “seems incredible and silly”, and diminishes what is otherwise a “very good” novel. The Living Sea of Waking Dreams ends up being an “uneasy hybrid”: masterful in parts, but crude and tiresome in others.
Chatto & Windus 282pp £16.99; The Week bookshop £13.99
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