Sometimes I despair over the sheer staggering number of new books. There’s so much to keep up with, but so little worth keeping up with, as a friend and I giggling agreed a decade ago, unsure if it were middle age (probably) or corporate takeovers that had dimmed our admiration. But fortunately there are still writers like Richard Flanagan. His 2008 novel, Wanting, is a masterpiece.
In this stunning literary novel, Flanagan draws parallels between Dickens’ sentimentalization of family, the 19th-century British genocide of Aborigines on the penal island of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), the adoption of a seven-year-old Aboriginal girl by Sir John Franklin, a governor of Tasmania and Polar explorer, and his wife, Lady Jane, and Arctic expeditions.
When years after their return to England, Lady Jane contacts Dickens to save her husband’s reputation, the connection between England and Van Diemen’s Land seems remote. Sir John, who had departed with two ships on an Arctic expedition to find the Northwest Passage, never returned, and Lady Jane refused to believe he was dead. But when a newspaper claimed that the mutilated remains found by Eskimaux indicated cannibalism among the last survivors of the expedition, Lady Jane asked Dickens to write an article denying the accusation. And Dickens became so wrapped up in his own fantasy of the Arctic explorers that not only did he refute the charges by a savage people (the article is now deemed racist) but co-wrote a play about Arctic explorers with Wilkie Collins, “The Frozen Deep”–and this led to his obsession with a teenage actress, Ellen Ternan.
Dickens’ unhappiness with his English family and obsession with the Arctic mirror Sir John’s greater unhappiness in Van Diemen’s Land and obsession with the Arctic. Both men are constrained by Victorian double standards; both love the idea of exploring frozen land (perhaps so they won’t feel). But the tragedy in Van Diemen’s Land, which Lady Jane tries to deny, is the real cause of the destruction of Sir John’s reputation. And Dickens’ passion for Ellen Ternan, Flanagan also implies, will do no good.
Flanagan’s Mathinna, the bright, lively Aboriginal girl, is inevitably ruined by the consequences of the Franklins’ adoption, and is one of the most vivid characters. This is an extremely sad part of the novel–in the shadow of the British empire’s genocide, human beings are picked up and then thrown away like trash.
Flanagan is a poetic, lucid writer whose brief narrative is layered with subtexts and verbal arabesques.
Another great Australian writer!