Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan has written seven novels, one of which—Gould’s Book of Fish—I would rank among the very finest of twenty-first century literature to date. I primarily read books of history, biography and science these days, but I do stray to the realm of fiction from time to time. When I happen upon a writer whose literary output not only consistently transcends the best published fiction of its day, but is so iconic that it comes to define its own genre—Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami also come to mind—I latch on to that novelist and set out to read their full body of work. Wanting marks my completion of all of Flanagan’s novels, and it turns out that I saved one of the very best for the very last.
There is irony here because I have long resisted it, based upon its off-putting description on Flanagan’s Wikipedia page—“Wanting tells two parallel stories: about the novelist Charles Dickens in England, and Mathinna, an Aboriginal orphan adopted by Sir John Franklin, the colonial governor of Van Diemen’s Land, and his wife, Lady Jane Franklin”—which struck me as a formula for fictional disaster! It turns out that I could not have been more wrong.
While several of Flanagan’s novels include characters from history, it would not be accurate to tag these as historical fiction, the way that category is generally understood. But then, the author’s work often defies classification. Flanagan is all about redefining genres—or creating new ones. Think Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Irving, André Brink: Richard Flanagan truly belongs in that league.
The real Sir John Franklin did indeed serve as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (today’s Tasmania), but he is better remembered as the arctic explorer who made a tragic end in 1847 in a disastrous attempt to chart the Northwest Passage, when his ships became icebound, resulting in his death as well as that of his entire crew. The legend of the lost expedition he commanded, and the true fate of his crew, have been the subject of much speculation right down to the present day, and Franklin has often been lionized for his heroism. But the John Franklin of Wanting is not only less heroic, but rather instead a grotesque, self-absorbed, disturbing individual. Franklin and his equally narcissistic wife, Lady Jane—desperate for a child of her own—ignore prevailing taboos to adopt Mathinna, also a historic figure, one of the few full-blooded aborigines still remaining on the island after a sustained reign of terror by colonial settlers and a succession of pandemics had reduced their numbers to near extinction. What at first glance smacks of altruism masks more questionable desires by each of the Franklins—their brand of “wanting”—that Mathinna comes to fulfill, or fails to fulfill. The tragedy of Mathinna is brilliantly revealed through the nuance and complexity of a masterfully written narrative that subtly draws the reader in to expose a series of horrors hidden among the mundane that is ever chilling yet never stoops to the gratuitous.
As if these characters and themes were not sufficiently complicated for any work of fiction, the novel contains an equally compelling parallel tale, told in alternating chapters, of author Charles Dickens in London, some ten thousand miles away. The connection of the Franklins to Dickens was a visit by Lady Jane to the famed novelist, seeking his support. In the years after her husband was lost to the Arctic, Lady Jane devoted her life both to memorializing him and sponsoring expeditions to locate him, in the feeble hope that he survived. Then evidence emerged that Franklin was in fact dead, hinting that in their last gasps he and the crew resorted to cannibalism to survive. Franklin’s widow will have none of it, and she enlists the aid of England’s most celebrated figure to defend Franklin’s honor against such horrid innuendo. Dickens, a Victorian rags-to-riches miracle who is both brilliant and wildly successful while yet morose and dissatisfied, haunted by the death of a favored child and locked in a loveless marriage, is plagued by his own sort of “wanting.” The intersection of his unrequited deepening well of discontent and Lady Jane’s determination to restore her husband’s reputation serves as the linchpin of the novel, spawning new purpose in Dickens even as Lady Jane basks in anticipation of the martyred explorer’s vindication. Dickens is far more intelligent and far more accomplished than either of the hapless Franklins, but despite his genius and outsize public persona he shares a similar unmistakable shallowness in his nature. In Flanagan’s Wanting, Dickens struggles to exist outside of the characters in his novels, and then takes it upon himself to produce, direct and cast himself in a role on the stage that permits him to stand before an audience as the heroic, romantic figure he longed to be.
Fiction reviews should largely avoid spoilers so I will leave it here, but history buffs will certainly google the main characters to learn what really happened. It won’t be giving much away to note that six years after Wanting was published in 2008, the wreck of the HMS Erebus—one of Franklin’s ships—was discovered, and two years after that his second ship was found, the HMS Terror, said to be in pristine condition. Even prior to that, evidence that cannibalism was in fact part of the crew’s final days was substantiated, contradicting both Lady Jane and the ardent defense mounted by Dickens. I will withhold the fate of poor Mathinna, other than to note that her gripping story—in the novel and in real life—will likely shadow the reader long after the last page of this book is turned.
I believe that every fiction review should include a snippet of the author’s own pen for those unfamiliar with their style and talent. This bit concerns a minor character—if any of Flanagan’s characters can be said to be minor ones—an aging actress in Dickens’ London:
On the night she had received the news of Louisa’s death, leaving her the only surviving member of her family, Mrs Ternan had stifled her weeping with a pillow so her daughters would not hear her heart breaking and would never suspect what she now knew: that every death of those you love is the death also of so many shared memories and understanding, of a now irretrievable part of your own life; that every death is another irrevocable step in your own dying, and it ends not with the ovation of a full house, but the creak and crack and dust of the empty theatre. [p90]
That powerful excerpt is just a tiny sample of Flanagan’s superlative prose. Wanting ranks amongst his finest novels, which in addition to Gould’s Book of Fish should also include Death of a River Guide, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North, although there is not a bad one in the catalog. For the uninitiated who would like to experience Flanagan’s art, Wanting is a great place to start. Perhaps you may find yourself, like this reviewer, going on to read them all.
[I have reviewed several other novels by Richard Flanagan here: Death of a River Guide: https://regarp.com/2015/07/23/review-of-death-of-a-river-guide-by-richard-flanagan/; The Sound of One Hand Clapping: https://regarp.com/2017/06/04/review-of-the-sound-of-one-hand-clapping-by-richard-flanagan/; The Narrow Road to the Deep North: https://regarp.com/2015/02/02/review-of-the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north-by-richard-flanagan/; and, First Person: https://regarp.com/2018/09/02/review-of-first-person-a-novel-by-richard-flanagan/]