February 28, 2009

Wanting - Richard Flanagan

Wanting is another book from my Best Australian Reads of 2008 list.

I had seen this book around quite a bit last year and despite enjoying the last Richard Flanagan book I read (The Unknown Terrorist) I did not pick it up - I think my fear was that the subject matter would be too much at a time when I was looking for some light reading. That's one reason I am grateful for reading lists and challenges - I have rarely come across a book I have regretted reading from these lists and Wanting is no exception.

Wanting is a haunting book - there is really no other way for me to describe my reading of it. I felt mesmerised by the story being played out in front of me and the characters that were playing it out.

The book is set in 2 main time periods and locations, Tasmania, Australia in 1839 and London in 1857. In the Tasmanian setting of the book we see Sir John Franklin, Governor of the state and his wife Lady Jane "adopt" a local Aboriginal girl, Mathinna and attempt to educate her in the ways of a white European. For Lady Jane the young girl is a sort of replacement for the children she was never able to have - although she pulls herself back from displaying any sort of affection or motherly love for the child fearing that it will spoil the experiment that is her education and transformation. For his part, Sir John leaves his decision making very much to his wife - both in personal and business matters - leaving Mathinna stuck in a limbo between two worlds. This story is based on a true story and although the author does not make claims of his novel being a history of the period or events he does list extensive sources he utilised in the writing of the book on his website.

The second storyline takes place 18 years after the above (although the two narratives are not written concurrently in the book - the focus swaps from one to the other throughout the story) and focuses on Charles Dickens and his links with the Sir John and Lady Jane story. After being forced out of being the Governor of Tasmania Sir John returns to England for a while before embarking on a exploration of the Arctic - a journey from which he will never return. After his failure to return from the voyage Lady Jane seeks the support and assistance of Dickens in disputing a theory that the men on the exploration resorted to cannibalism. Dickens does offer support to Lady Jane as well as basing a new play on the arctic storyline. It is through Dickens's writing and performing of this play that we see his yearnings - for his life and his writing - played out.

Both of these story lines and their coming together through the theme of yearning and wanting captured me from the beginning. Even though I have read some of Dickens' novels I must admit I have known little about his life - something I am now going to rectify. The story of Australian history and the injustices that were brought to the Aboriginal people by white Europeans is something that is more familiar to me but I think it is an area of our history that we can never know too much about. I think Richard Flanagan handles both story lines wonderfully - the writing is engaging and deliberate and in a way, poetic. A wonderful book.


megan said...

I haven't enjoyed a Richard Flanagan novel since I read "The Sound of One Hand Clapping" (oh how I loved that book!), but this sounds like one I could get on board with. Dickens' life fascinates me, and Flanagan does tend to write very evocatively about Tasmania. Will add it to my (ever expanding) list!

I think I'm going to have to join a library this year.

Amy said...

great review! this actually looks really good yet complex. (the more intricate the better;)

Karen said...

Hi Megan - I actually haven't read The Sound Of One Hand Clapping - I'll have to add that to my ever growing list! I am finding the library vital at the moment - there is no way I would be able to afford all of the books I am wanting to read at the moment.

Hi Amy - you're right, this book was a little complex in its structure but I found it pretty easy to follow once I got the hang of the different time swaps.

Anonymous said...

This is another book in my TRB pile, so I'm again glad to hear it's good. The Franklin story is a fascinating one, and i'm interested to see how Flanagan ties it in with Dickens.

If you do want to read more about Dickens, the Chesterton and Ackroyd bios are both very good. Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman sheds light on Nelly Ternan, and being Tomalin is thorough and insightful.

Karen said...

Hi adevotedreader - I think Flanagan does a great job bringing these two stories together but it will be great to hear what you think.
Thanks for the other reading auggestions too. The Tomalin book sounds great.

claire said...

Hi, thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm so glad because now I've discovered yours, which is wonderful.
I haven't heard of this book before, but it's going on my tbr list now, because you made it sound good, the cover is pretty, AND there's something about Dickens in it! :D

Karen said...

Hi Claire - thanks for stopping by my blog too! I'm loving your blog - and the great book recommendations I am getting from it!

Tamara said...

Hi Karen, I actually enjoyed Flanagans's first book when we did it at book club, so I think I might like to borrow this sometime too..put it in my TBR pile which I should come a collect soon.

Karen said...

Hi Tamara - I enjoyed the one from bookclub too. I actually borrowed this one from the library but it is a beautiful book that would be nice to own I think.

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