A review of Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

by Richard Flanagan
Knopf Australia
November 2008, hardcover, RRP $35.00, ISBN: 9781741666557, 256pp

One of the key objections I had to Richard Flanagan’s last novel, The Unknown Terrorist was that it put the ideology first: making a political point at the expense of the characters and the plot. This isn’t at all the case in Wanting. Indeed, in Wanting, as in Gould’s Book of Fish, the whole notion of historical fact becomes subservient to the greater truth – that of human nature – the most fundamental of emotional responses and how they underpin the making of history. Wanting is a novel that traces the trajectory of desire.

The novel follows the way desire, and its flipside, repression, pushes us forward. Although in Wantingtime is as much a shifting illusion as the notion of ‘mastering passion’, or the difference between “savage” and “civilised”, the novel opens in 1839. It’s the end of the war between the Van Diemonian (Tasmanian) tribes, and the “Empire”. The remaining tribe are broken: “scabby, miserable and often consumptive,” and under the “care” of the Protector, a man who believes that he is doing good by converting and protecting them, while deep down knowing instinctively that the fact that they are “dying like flies” is partly his doing. Like many of the characters in this novel, he has had his moment of illumination: a brief sense of beauty and freedom overwhelming him during a dance festival, but that is tamped and stifled into something ugly and paternal. King Romeo (Towterer) is a man that the Protector thinks of as an equal, and when after his death, his daughter Mathinna becomes part of the Protector’s group. After seeing her dance, Lady Jane Franklin is moved by a maternal response to adopt Mathinna. That response – the ‘wanting’ –is subsumed into a kind of scientific experiment which involves an attempt at educating the native out of Mathinna.

Fifteen years later, Mathinna has already been sent to her doom at an orphanage, the experiment abandoned, and Sir John has escaped on his final, fatal voyage. Lady Jane is in London to ask Charles Dickens to help her clear her husband’s name from the accusation of cannibalism. This sets in train a parallel journey in the opposite direction for Dickens as he moves from a state of stifled paralysis to one where he gives in to his desire:

He could no longer discipline his undisciplined heart. And he, a man who had spent a life believing that giving in to desire was the mark of a savage, realised that he could no longer deny wanting. (241)

Like good poetry, the novel is full of correspondences, connections, and vivid imagery. The most powerful is the black swan. In a lesser author’s hand, Lady Jane’s naming of Mathinna as Leda would be too obvious. Somehow Flanagan pulls it off, as he does the wreck of Mathinna by Sir John Franklin dressed in a black swan suit. The poetic use of colour continues through the ‘resolute black of an arctic winter’, the terrible white of the ice flows, the white kangaroo suit, the black skin, the cygnets served for dinner, the red dress and its ultimate transformation from dress to scarf to noose. Throughout the book, the visual imagery is both horrible and beautiful, staying with the reader in the rich depiction of character and setting. Much of the book is written in prose so tersely beautiful it could easily work in stanzas:

She held her face in her hands, as if she were unsure that both it and she were still there, and looked skywards. Through the cracks between her fingers a silver light fell. (222)

Though the villains and victims are fairly clear, with outrage towards the obvious villains never far from the surface, it is Flanagan’s great art that the reader both understands and feels the pain of Dickens, Sir John, the Protector, and Lady Jane:

She wished to rush down to the filthy courtyard, grab Mathinna and steal the frightened child away from all this love and pity, this universal understanding that it was necessary that she suffer so. She wished to wash and soothe her, to whisper that it was all right, over and over, that she was safe now, to kiss the soft shells of her ears, hold her close, feed her warm soup and bread. (195)

The way in which Flanagan takes the private tragedy – the perversion of wanting–and turns it into public history, is as clever and thought provoking as the way in which he references the work of Dickens: Little Dorrit and Great Expectations in particular, in the context of his story. There are other texts – some fictive and some historical that this book references – these things are fact, but beneath that is the pain and hunger that gave rise to those references. The real story lies beneath the facts – the ‘wanting’ submerged in the hardened ice of time:

And at the pleasant thought of absconding from adulthood, of returning to an implacable solitude as if to the womb, to an inevitable oblivion that by the strangest alchemy of a nation’s dreaming would inexorably become celebrity and history, he smiled again and called for his glass once more to be filled, all the while trying to halt his hand from trembling.(184)

As with Gould’s Book of Fish, Wanting undermines history, recreating it in a magical realism form that tells a greater truth. Like Adrienne Eberhart’s  Jane, Lady Franklin, what drives the story is not what happened but what was felt. Unlike Eberhart’s Lady Franklin, Flanagan’s heroine is as guilty as she is tragic. She destroys what she loves by denying herself. This is a powerful novel which shows Flanagan at the height of his considerable literary powers. Long after the story has faded, the reader will be left remembering Mathinna’s pain, the Franklins’ longing and guilt (and maybe our own too), and Dickens’ transformation.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.