- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Atlantic Books; Main edition (1 Mar. 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1848870779
- ISBN-13: 978-1848870772
- Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.8 x 19.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 34 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 350,881 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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 *
About the Author
Richard Flanagan is the author of three novels which have all been published to international acclaim: Death of a River Guide, The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Gould's Book of Fish. His latest novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Man Booker Prize 2014. He lives with his family in West Hobart, Tasmania.
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There are two stories set about twenty years apart. In the first, in Van Diemen's Land, the British-run penal colony, John Franklyn and his wife have taken over the governorship and 'adopted' a native girl. The plan is to convert her from savage to a 'true' English woman, to demonstrate to the world the 'superiority' of Englishness, and to 'prove' that it can triumph over even what they perceived to be the most base, the most vicious and amoral instincts with which the girl was imbibed simply by virtue of her birth.
In the second story, we find Charles Dickens at a crossroads. He's fallen out of love with Catherine, his wife, he's lost Dora, his youngest child, and his melancholia has driven him out onto the London streets, to question the whole ethos of family, hearth and home that he has essentially created. Enter Jane Franklyn, whose husband John has perished in a bid to find the North West Passage, and has been accused of resorting to cannibalism. Jane, appalled at this very savage and un-English accusation, which undermines the noble memory she's worked so hard to create of her husband, wants Dickens, through his writing, to 'prove' that there is no way Franklyn would have allowed himself or his crew to commit such a foul crime.
At this point in the story of course, we don't know what happened to the Franklyn's experiment with their native adopted child, but the parallels are clearly drawn. Frankly and Dickens both feel themselves trapped, past their prime, and are seeking to reclaim their earlier fame. Both feel that their wives are dragging them down. Both are attracted to the youth, the freshness, the tabula rasa of a young girl - at this point Franklyn is obsessed with his adopted daughter, and Dickens has just met Ellen Ternan, the 18 year old actress with whom he had an affaire that lasted the rest of his life (and if you want to know more about this, do read Claire Tomalin's fabulous biography of Ellen). Dickens's play about Franklyn takes over his life, and as he writes and acts in it, the concept of the noble savage, of Englishness, of man's carnal appetites when the bonds of civilisation are removed, take over him too. As his play begins to re-establish Franklyn, we see, in Franklyn's previous life, that not only is his wife's experiment with the native child fading, but that rather than have her 'tamed', she is in fact going a long way to un-tame them.
So, as I said, this is a fascinating literary study. I love the use of two so famous historical characters, the probing into the darkness of their minds and the speculation as to their motivation. I loved the parallels in the stories. But...
The problem is, there was no real story. In a literary novel, there maybe doesn't have to be - in my university years, I'd probably have argued strongly for this to be the case. But I don't think so now. So okay, it was a character study. Yes, it was, but it left me wanting something more out of it. There weren't any conclusions. Don't get me wrong. This was brilliantly written. The prose in places left me in complete awe. It was a fascinating subject matter, and it asked some really interesting questions. But I felt, on the whole, that the novel didn't reach a destination. I felt, ultimately, frustrated.
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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