Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Was this going to be another one of those books about the aboriginies of Tasmania? We've read Secret River and The English Passenger and didn't need more of the same. Wanting was promoted as something quite different: a novel to "show how the colonized and the home territories are inextricably linked."

The two strands run side by side in the novel. Mathina, a young orphaned aboriginal girl, is adopted by Lady Jane Franklin who seeks to experiment with civilizing the natives. She never gets close to the child but appears to be achieving her aim of civilising – but not educating – her when unexpectedly the child's natural desires break out. Unfortunately so do those of her husband, Sir John Franklin.

Sir John had been the governor of Tasmania, still living on his reputation as an arctic explorer. Finally expelled from his post he journeyed once more into the arctic where he disappeared. Back in England Lady Jane tries her best to rescue his reputation – and her own – by exonerating him from the slur of cannibalism. And to do this she employs the help of Charles Dickens.

Mathina was cast out before the Franklins left Tasmania and let us just say that her life thereafter was all downhill. Her story mirrors the plight of the natives and the dramatic irony of the tale – and the true story - was that the savages were more humane and civilized that the Westerners that chose to subjugate and civilize them.

This aspect is personified in the character of Dickens far away in civilized England. He champions family life in his books and in his outward persona but is not happy with his lot. He has fame, he has family. The first he relishes, the second he finds disappointing and eventually betrays.

It seems to me that Flanagan said to himself: I can't write yet another one of those books about the aboriginies of Tasmania. What can I do to give it a new twist? I know, think of a well known character and link them in some way. And up he came with Dickens and desire. But the result feels contrived. The two stories do not sit comfortably together; although the form is cleverly constructed it is a clumsy concept.

Flanagan is quite obviously a good writer and it is an easy book to read because it is deceptively well written. Like the curate's egg, it is good in parts. When Mathina's desire finally gets the better of her and she dances as she feels, the writing is as passionate as the act. The same could be said of the desire that Dickens finally succumbs to. In fact the groupies found the part about Dickens so interesting they thought it deserved to be enlarged as a stand-alone book.

Those who had read Flanagan's other books and loved them were perhaps disappointed and this coloured their criticism. But none of us enjoyed the novel for various reasons. No-one was drawn to any of the characters in the book. None would recommend it. And yes, the part concerning Mathina was yet another one of those books about the aboriginies of Tasmania. And a pretty depressing one at that.

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