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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting and Mesmeric
There have been many novels in the past few years about Britain's colonial past. The best have skilfully avoided the guilty self flagellation that might cause excessive simplification into all whites = bad, all natives = good. Kate Grenville's The Secret River was a beautifully written novel set at the time of the first white settlements in Australia. Richard Flanagan has...
Published on 7 April 2010 by Leyla Sanai

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wanting
Three stories interweave in this semi-fictional Victorian novel. The author unravels the psyche of Charles Dickens - his affair with Ellen Ternan developing while he produces a play about the explorer Franklin. The second theme concerns Franklin himself, especially his time in Tasmania; this also involves the reflections of his wife, Lady Jane, who is later to fund...
Published 15 months ago by gerardpeter


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting and Mesmeric, 7 April 2010
By 
Leyla Sanai "leyla" (glasgow) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Wanting (Paperback)
There have been many novels in the past few years about Britain's colonial past. The best have skilfully avoided the guilty self flagellation that might cause excessive simplification into all whites = bad, all natives = good. Kate Grenville's The Secret River was a beautifully written novel set at the time of the first white settlements in Australia. Richard Flanagan has now done the same for Tazmania - previously known as Van Diemen's Land.

First published in Australia in 2008 and in the UK in hardback in 2009, the paperback edition of Wanting was published in the UK just a couple of weeks ago.

My expectations about this book were sky-high: after all, not every novel comes with a glowing endorsement from the likes of William Boyd stamped on the back cover. Other reviewers from The Times, The Guardian, The TLS, The NYT and the Australian press have joined in the eulogies. So, no pressure then.

Wanting is a fictionalised account of the time when Sir John Franklin, the enthusiastic explorer, was governor of Van Diemen's Land in the 1840s. Sir John Franklin was the explorer who was credited with finding the northwest passage around the world. He was much lauded as a man who died in honourable circumstances during this expedition with his two ships, Erebus and Terror, in the late1840s/early 1850s, and a monument was built to his memory. However, the work of another expert sent to investigate the disappearance of the two ships several years after they set off, Dr John Rae, who spent time with the Inuit people around the Arctic, suggested that Franklin's men had perished because of the unsuitability of the climate and had resorted to cannibalism. The writer Charles Dickens rose to the posthumous defence of Franklin, even though Rae's theories and research were later vindicated.

The novel is set in two different settings. One is Van Diemen's Land in the early 1840s. Sir John Franklin is governor and his wife, Lady Jane, a woman torn between conventionality and warmth, decides to adopt an orphaned native girl, Mathinna. This is an industrious attempt to carry out a social experiment mingled in with a maternal urge that Lady Jane finds distasteful in herself. Mathinna is taken away from a culture in which fellow tribesmen and women are dying at an alarming rate despite the patronising and paternalistic attempts by a Presbyterian carpenter turned preacher to 'civilise' them.

The young girl is uprooted from her culture and taken to the governor's house where assiduous attempts are made to educate her. The failings of a dismal stream of incompetent tutors and governesses are misinterpreted as an inability to learn, and Mathinna is left to play and enjoy her privileged life.

But then events take an ugly turn and Mathinna's life is changed forever. Sir John decides to set off on the ill-fated expedition, and he is never heard from again.

The second strand of the story is set in London some 9 years after Sir John set off on the doomed journey. Charles Dickens is established as a respected writer in London but is filled with ennui privately. He has grown tired of his wife, who has become fat and listless after giving birth to ten children, and is scarred by the death of his youngest daughter. Dickens is summoned by Lady Jane, now resettled in London, to help clear the reputation of her vanished husband in the face of damaging suggestions of cannibalism by Dr John Rae.

The most mesmeric parts of the novel are those dealing with Mathinna's life. The changes wrought in her existence and the catastrophic results of this ill-conceived and inconsistent social experiment are gut-wrenching and compellingly evoked.

A theme running through the story is desire - the repression of it by stiff upper-lipped Englishmen, the way suppressed human urges can boil over, the methods by which it can lead to salvation or ruin.

Flanagan combines a taut ability to narrate events, an ability to create convincing characters, and a wry, observant wit. Sir John's body is said to give 'no more appearance of an active intelligence than a well-tended pumpkin.' And his dullness is mischievously evoked:

'She (Lady Jane) talked to him of history, landscapes, picturesque ruins and her sensations of vertigo when, as a child, she gathered with vast crowds of the lowliest of London to watch Byron's funeral parade and thought she might fall forever. He replied with reports of navigation, Admiralty regulations, auroras, and how delightful reindeer tongues were to eat when properly cooked, the skin peeling off like a sock...The prospect of eating something redolent of feet notwithstanding, she liked his seriousness, which she mistook for an achievement in which she might share.'

Wanting did not disappoint - it's a mesmeric read, written with acuity and panache. The only misgiving I have about novels that fictionalize real-life historical figures is where the line should be drawn at creating fictional characteristics and actions. In Jay Parini's The Last Station, Tolstoy's last few years were imagined with the aid of many diaries kept by those closest to him, and Parini was careful not to imbue Tolstoy with any controversial traits. Sir John Franklin is long dead and it's unlikely that any existing relatives will be upset by the imagined elements of this story, but caution might be wise with more recent public figures.

But taken as a novel, as it's intended to be, Wanting is a haunting tale which will not be easily forgotten. It's a tragic story, beautifully told, and Flanagan richly deserves the praise that has been heaped his way.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "We all have appetites and desires. But only the savage agrees to sate them.", 3 May 2009
By 
Mary Whipple (New England) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Wanting (Hardcover)
Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan emphasizes, through his ambiguous title, two of the most contradictory characteristics of Queen Victoria's reign---the "wanting," or desire, to conquer other lands and bring "civilization" to them, and the "want," or lack, of empathy and respect for the people and cultures which they deliberately destroy in the process. The same contradictory characteristics are also reflected in (hypocritical) personal relationships: desire is "uncivilized," something to be overcome, though men routinely indulge their passions with those far "beneath" them. These ideas provide the thematic underpinning of this novel.

The novel opens in 1839, as a preacher, overseeing a small group of wretched aborigines exiled from Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania) to Flinders Island, is mystified by the increasingly "monstrous deaths" of the people under his "protection." He has been careful to demand that the aborigines adopt western dress, eat a western diet, and follow a western way of life. When their leader, King Romeo, dies an agonizing death, the Protector saws off his head for further study by British scientists. Ten pages (and fifteen years) later, Lady Jane Franklin, wife of Sir John Franklin, the former Governor of Van Dieman's Land, is in London, trying to raise money for new expeditions to discover the fate of her explorer husband, his ships, and their crews, lost for nine years in the Arctic. She has displayed the skull of King Romeo to phrenologists, who have concluded that the King was a savage, enslaved by his passions.

Ironies abound. Lady Franklin is frantic to find an influential ally who can help her quell the rumor that Sir John Franklin and his crew became so savage during their final days in the Arctic that they engaged in cannibalism and other "uncivilized" behavior. Charles Dickens and his friend Wilkie Collins, the two most popular writers in England during the period, answer the call.

As the action moves back and forth between Van Dieman's Land and London, Flanagan gives depth to the bleak picture of colonial life, creating an emotionally wrenching portrait of Mathinna, orphaned child of King Romeo, as she is wrested from her countrymen on Flinders Island and brought into the home of the ambitious Lady Jane Franklin to be "civilized." He creates, in London, a parallel character study of Charles Dickens, who, though miserable in his marriage, believes that "we all have appetites and desire," but that "only the savage agrees to sate them." Throwing himself into his work to stay sane, he finds himself, ironically, attracted to one of the actresses in his play, The Frozen Deep.

The constantly changing time periods and revolving settings are sometimes challenging to follow, and the connections among the various plot lines are a bit tenuous (and may be historically inaccurate), but Flanagan creates memorable characters who reflect their cultures and their hypocrisies. Numerous parallels and ironies between the "civilized" British characters and the "savages" show the arrogance of power, while Flanagan's vivid descriptions of the characters' surroundings add to the sense of immediacy and bring the often brutal action to life. Life in Van Dieman's Land is ugly---pitiless---grinding down the characters (and the reader). Three years after the departure of the Franklins, life for all the people they have left behind is worse than it was before their arrival. An unusual novel which shows the damaging effects of empire-building on both the conquered and on the arrogant conquerors, Wanting makes the reader understand why the surviving aborigines ultimately believe "the world was not run by God but by the Devil." n Mary Whipple

Gould's Book of Fish, Flanagan's masterpiece, 2001, winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
The Unknown Terrorist, 2006.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping, 1997.
Death of a River Guide, 1994.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wanting, 11 May 2013
This review is from: Wanting: A Novel (Kindle Edition)
Three stories interweave in this semi-fictional Victorian novel. The author unravels the psyche of Charles Dickens - his affair with Ellen Ternan developing while he produces a play about the explorer Franklin. The second theme concerns Franklin himself, especially his time in Tasmania; this also involves the reflections of his wife, Lady Jane, who is later to fund Dickens' play above. Finally, there is the tragedy of an aboriginal girl, Mathinna, who becomes the object of Lady Jane's attempts to civilize savages. The circle is completed by Dickens' belief that he himself is a savage, redeemed only by self-control (which he eventually loses in the arms of Ellen Ternan). The difficulty is that while all the historical characters are real enough much of the story is possibly not. The real problem is that the best bit of the book - the fate of the girl - should stand alone and be more fully explored.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "I do not entirely agree with those who say it is a matter of science", 5 Jun 2009
This review is from: Wanting (Hardcover)
1850's Van Diemen's Land - Tasmania and the ongoing war between the whites and the blacks is a war the Aborigines can no longer win. With the colonial government offering the last and only realistic option: sanctuary at Wybalenna, the outpost on the islands of Bass Strait in return for their country, it is here amongst the sad broken-down remnants of what was once a proud race that a man called "The Protector" tries to become their savior. But nothing that he did for them could alter the fact that the people who he had bought to God's light were yet dying in a strange way. When the famous polar explorer the newly appointed Governor of Tasmania Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane Franklin travel to Flinders Island, Lady Jane befriends Mathinna, a young aborigine girl initially under the tutelage of The Protector.

Entranced by Mathinna's dancing, her slow way of moving, so distinct and so poignant, Lady Jane transports her back to Hobart as part of a new kind of experiment. Perhaps they can somehow breed some of this "savagery out" of the wayward girl. Cementing Mathinna's introduction into Hobartian society, the Governor and his wife instill in her all that is virtuous in English civilization, along with a favorite red dress, uncomfortable court shoes, and the appointment of a tutor Francis Lazaretto. Unfortunately the marriage between Sir John and Lady Jane is on shaky ground with Lady Jane feeling faint and lost. Watching Mathinna she feels she understands the child, imagining her grief, her needs, and her dreams. Even as the Franklins fall ever-more in love with the girl, Mathinna can't shake the ways of her native world. She's a girl where freedom is running through wallaby grass, her bare feet on the wet mushy earth and the beliefs in the sacred spirit stories of her people, the spirits who could fly.

While the dramas of Mathinna and her strange involvement with the Governor and his wife play out amongst the balls and parties and society events of the young colony of Hobart, the town awash in visitors, old colonists, and prospective new free settlers, all the way across the oceans in England, Charles Dickens finds himself linked to the fates of Lady Jane and that of the faded actress Mrs. Ellen Ternan. Emotionally fleeing from his wife, Catherine, her very presence bringing on in him a wordless anguish, Charles's life suddenly becomes an object lesson in the control of his passions. Ironically, it is his best friends Wilkie Collins and John Forster, and his meeting with Lady Jane that resonate in an unexpected and as yet intangible ways with him.

This beautifully composed novel works on so many levels, especially as a subtle homage to the nature of unfilled desire contained in the private passions of Dickens, of Sir John and Lady Jane, Ellen Ternan, and mostly of poor Mathinna who finds herself exiled from both worlds as she steadily drinks herself towards darkness. Of course fate waits by to ambush Mathinna in what predictably becomes a sad and sorry life. Weaving into his characters an intricate web of personal demons, political desires, and an intense ambition, the harsh realities of a cruel world and that of Tasmania, and it's convict and aboriginal history (and also this reviewer's birthplace) are what ultimately drive this intense novel.

Certainly for the natives, the arrival of the British heralded a new world filled with the devil, for their part the white settlers considered the aborigines as pests and barbarous heathens who had turned away from God. At first, the narrative which constantly moves between Dickens's England and the events in Van Diemen's Land is a bit distracting, yet the sections with the world's most famous author do give an added weight to much of the presumed power and moral authority of the "mother country." But what is ultimately so formidable and tragic in this story is Flanagan's simple but gifted prose and his vision of a State and of a country forever on the cusp of change. Mike Leonard June 09.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Another excellent read, 2 Nov 2013
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This review is from: Wanting (Paperback)
Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite authors and this book did not disappoint. I have most of his books in my collection and am always hoping to hear he has published another.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as hoped, 26 Jun 2010
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This review is from: Wanting (Hardcover)
The book is in two sections with a 25 year gap between them and concerns on one hand the story of how a white couple tried to adopt an aboriginal girl in order to 'civilise' herwhen living on Van Diemans Island - and the story of Charles Dickens and a play he and Wilkie Collins created for his family to appear in and with which he subsequently became rather obsessed. These two stories are only very very loosely brought together when Dickens writes a magazine article defending John Franklin from accusations of cannibalism on his last voyage (which is barely touched on) of exploration during which he perished/ I have to say that I found the weaving together of these two disparate stories with such a tenuous link very odd.

Having said that I did not hate the book, it was easy to read and in lots of ways a fascinating insight into both the mindset of the 'white man' and how they treated other races and on the other hand the way during Dickens time men and women were treated so differently. Both stories are sad and horrific in their own way. I suppose the way marriage had to be endured by the women was a theme in both stories and how badly men could get away with behaving. But this is not enough to make the side by side stories work. The way the child is treated is appalling and also the way the white man seemed determined to wipe out the aboriginal race - reminiscent of WW2 anyone??
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and compelling historical fiction based on fact, 28 Aug 2010
This review is from: Wanting (Paperback)
Set in the mid to late 19th century and told in alternating chapters, it centres around Sir John Franklin's time as Governor of Van Diemen's Land in Tasmania, where he subsequently adopts an aboriginal girl called Mathinna, his wife's determination to clear her husband's name from the accusation of cannibalism when he disappears on an expedition and the role which Charles Dickens plays in clearing Sir John's name. The story is about desires and their consequences, be it wanting to explore, wanting a child or wanting to be loved.

I found this a fascinating and compelling book and was particularly interested in the chapters concerning Charles Dickens, where we also meet Wilkie Collins, another illustrious writer. It was also a poignant tale, the story of the aboriginal girl, Mathinna, being quite sad and tragic.

I found the author's note of great interest. Although Richard Flanagan points out that 'Wanting' is not a history, I read it as historical fiction based on fact. I thought it was well written and researched with good use of imagination.

I found it a pleasure to read and would thoroughly recommend it!
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1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not my taste unfortunately, 9 Oct 2009
By 
Sarah "Shelbycat" (Llanelli) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Wanting (Hardcover)
This is an interesting novel to someone like myself who lived in Australia for a short time. And especially so since i worked in the State Archive of Western Australia collating their images of Aboriginal peoples.

The action in this novel moves between Lady Jane Franklin in Van Dieman's Land and Charles Dickens in London, in striking contrast to each other. This is the second novel about Charles Dickens that i have read in the last year and i have to say that i prefered the other one (Girl in a Blue Dress).

However, i have to say it left a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth to see the characters all running around "Wanting" things like little children and then not appreciating them when they had them.
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Wanting
Wanting by Richard Flanagan (Paperback - 1 Mar 2010)
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