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Haunting and Mesmeric,
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.