In Review

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

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

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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