Wanting Paperback – 1 Mar 2010
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One of the best novels of this year... Flanagan's cast of virtuoso characters... are vivid, memorable beings, burnt into the retina of the imagination long after the novel comes to an end... An irresistibly good story. Rachel Holmes, The Times In confident, expert hands, fiction can liberate the past... Richard Flanagan is an exemplary case in point. Through his fiction, flat, conformist portraits of individuals become rich and three-dimensional, new witnesses provide fresh testimony about the past, and Tasmania's silences resound with voices. William Boyd, New York Times Book Review The best novel I have read this year or expect to read for several more Sydney Morning Herald Exquisite, profoundly moving, intricately structured Los Angeles Times Brilliant... A captivating tale of cruelty and disappointment... Dazzling Ron Charles, Washington Post
A novel of magnificent power and reach from one of the most original and impressive novelists working in the English language today - and winner of the Man Booker Prize 2014See all Product description
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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.
The truth, ostensibly portrayed here by Richard Flanagan, is that Franklin was a weak and lazy man, spurred to take high office and seek adventure by a domineering wife. After he was lost, it is common knowledge that his wife kept his memory alive through offering rewards, demanding rescue missions and soliciting the help of the great and the good. In Wanting, we see Lady Franklin trying to sign up a dubious Charles Dickens to the cause.
But of perhaps greater interest is Franklin's previous experience as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemans's Land (now Tasmania). Franklin inherited a pretty lawless place where European settlers had created the harshest conditions for convicts and set about exterminating the indigenous population - and Franklin sat back and watched. Under sufferance and at the behest of his wife, Sir John set about touring the colony and found the remains of a tribe of Aboriginal people who had suffered violence and disease. The king, Towterer, had been killed and his head taken for study. His infant daughter had been named Mathinna and appropriated by the local headman, Robinson, but was taken back to Hobart by Lady Franklin and adopted as her own. Initially an experiment to see how far indigenous people could be trained to act like white people, Mathinna fell out of favour when the answer turned out to be "too much". And when the Franklins returned to England, Mathinna was sent to the state orphanage. Mathinna was subsequently returned to her community, rejected because she was too European, and died young whilst working as a prostitute.
Mathinna's story is true and known, hence it is not really a spoiler to discuss it. It represents one of the darkest episodes in a dark history of European settlement in Australia.
The point in Wanting is, perhaps, to bring that story to those who do not already know it, but more to counterpoint the supposed heroism of the Franklins with this despicable act of colonial betrayal.
The Dickens sections of Wanting feel slower and more laboured. There is supposed to be a conflict between Dickens's public and very proper persona and his private life as a womaniser. Perhaps it is a parallel to the chasm between public and private conduct of the Franklins. But as a story, it is covered better by Gaynor Arnold in Girl In A Blue Dress. There is some discussion about whether the mark of a civilised person is being master of his own desires. Doubtless, Lady Franklin would have felt vindicated by Mathinna's fall into sin and disgrace and seen this as nature shining through lavish nurture, but the reader is left to reflect that Dickens himself led no more moral a life.
Wanting is a complex novel and as an account of the injustices faced by the Traditional Owners of Australia, it works well. As a debunking of Franklin, it does work but was probably unnecessary - the recent proof of rumours of cannibalism in the Arctic being sufficient. But the Dickens stuff just seems to get in the way.
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