Aljaz Cosini, a Tasmanian river guide, is trapped under water, his body wedged between rocks in the Franklin River, into which he has dived in an effort to save a reckless rafter. "I have entered the realm of the fabulous, of hallucinations, for there is no way anybody stuck drowning could experience such things," he thinks, as many generations of his family history pass through his mind. As this remarkable narrative unfolds, it alternates between Aljaz's dying, first person memories of his family's past and his objective, third person observations about life in contemporary Tasmania. Through Aljaz's memories, the reader learns the sad history of the island, a former penal colony for the most hardened criminals, the site of total genocide for the aboriginal natives, a remote colony with little hope and no tolerance for differences. A bright boy, Aljaz himself has intentionally failed everything in school, because "by failing, Aljaz begins to fit in with people...there is a camaraderie amongst the ranks of the fallen....They expect to be failed, to be unemployed, to be pushed around, to know only despair."
This is a story of abject hopelessness, the misery of Aljaz's family continuing through the four or five generations we meet during Aljaz's final moments and culminating in Aljaz's own predicament. The author does not even hold out the hope that Aljaz himself will be rescued, choosing to confirm the death in the book's title, before the reader even opens the book. What unites the generations (and keeps the reader going) is the clear and abiding respect for nature we see throughout the book--for the power of the river, for the unique animals of the island, for the stories and myths of the old people--and the belief that there is a unity of man and nature. And Aljaz experiences the ultimate unity with nature in his death in the river, as he becomes one with the sea eagle who "carries the spirits of the ancestors."
The characters one meets in this book are memorable, as they survive the best way they can. The tales of nature and the mystical moments that Aljaz experiences are vivid and uplifting, a fitting contrast to the reality of life. The action on the river is realistic and exciting, and there is a thematic unity which connects the generations of the past with the action in the present. It may be self-defeating, however, to create a novel in which the reader is asked to become personally involved with a main character whose death is foretold from the outset. Though that confirms and reinforces the point the author is making about the hopelessness of Aljaz's life, it certainly makes this novel a depressing ride for the reader. Mary Whipple