Richard Flanagan’s (Gould’s Book of Fish) new novel runs dual stories that (of course) touch on the same themes. Succinctly put, as Flanagan does with the title, it is a novel of “wanting” – or desire.
On the one hand, there’s the story of Charles Dickens, the most celebrated man of his day in England. He finds himself in the ironic position of having written for years as an advocate of home and hearth – of family. Yet he finds his family lacking in something. Much of Dickens’ feelings, and the friends he shares them with, are familiar from Dan Simmon’s Drood. Willkie Collins. Ellen Ternan.
And at that moment, Dickens knew he loved her. 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 he could no longer deny wanting.
The counterpoint story (and they do intersect as well) takes place in Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land). Mathinna, a young precocious aboriginal girl is taken under the wing of Lady Jane Franklin, ostensibly as a scientific experiment. Lady Jane doesn’t necessarily know what she ‘wants’. Her husband knows, and it’s not to be administering colonial rule in a South Sea island. He’d rather be on the ice, exploring.
…while happily dreaming all the time of the ice to which he knew he could now return. The polar regions existed beyond politics and progress; doubt visited every day, but had little choice but to leave quickly. The emptiness invited simple decisions, and required that these be honoured with inordinate courage; for the decisions were momentous but not complex, and in spite of all the talk of discovery, of survival, it was a world of lost children whose failures were celebrated as the triumphs of men.
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.
Lady Jane especially, is a tragic figure, because her real desires are so buried underneath social norms, class and status, that she cannot really get in touch with her true feelings. This leads her to make decisions against her true feelings, impacting not only her life, but that of Mathinna.
It was 1844. The last pair of great auks in the world had just been killed, Friedrich Nietzsche born, and Samuel Morse sent the first electrical communication in history. It was a telegram that read: What hath God wrought.
`I loved her,’ said Lady Jane.
The figure of Charles Dickens also has repressed his true desires under a literary identity which has limited him in ways he only understands in the last years of his life. Dickens emotional life was poured into his characters, and later when he discovered acting, through his roles. It was in a play called The Frozen Deep (based on the Franklin’ expedition of Lady Jane’s husband) that Dickens emotional soul began to thaw. I was surprised to learn of Charles Dickens’ passion and skill at acting in Drood. That was confirmed here in Flanagan’s novel as well.
Mathinna is the most tragic figure in Flanagan’s novel, and the slow and inevitable dissolution that she undergoes is poignant and maddening at the same time.
Those not dead numbered fewer than a hundred and were in despair, and still they kept dying. Of a morning the women would walk to the top of Flagstaff Hill and sit there all day, looking at an outline sixty miles south, the distant coastline of their homeland. There, their villages of rotting cupola huts awaited a return that would never happen.
Not everything works for me with this Flanagan novel. Of all the books I’ve read though that touched on the theme of the attempted genocide of aboriginals in Tasmania, this is the one that was the most powerful.