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  1. There have been many novels in the past few years about Britain's imperialist and colonial past. The best have skilfully avoided the guilty self flagellation that might cause excessive simplification into all whites = bad, all natives = good. Kate Grenville's The Secret River was a beautifully written novel set at the time of the first white settlements in Australia. Richard Flanagan has now done the same for Tasmania - previously known as Van Diemen's Land. First published in Australia in 2008 and in the UK in hardback in 2009, the paperback edition of Wanting was published in the UK just a couple of weeks ago. My expectations about this book were sky-high: after all, not every novel comes with a glowing endorsement from the likes of William Boyd stamped on the back cover. Other reviewers from The Times, The Guardian, The TLS, The NYT and the Australian press have joined in the eulogies. So, no pressure then. Wanting is a fictionalised account of the time when Sir John Franklin, the enthusiastic explorer, was governor of Van Diemen's Land in the 1840s. Sir John Franklin was the explorer who was credited with finding the northwest passage around the world. He was much lauded as a man who died in honourable circumstances during this expedition with his two ships, Erebus and Terror, in the late1840s/early 1850s, and a monument was built to his memory. However, the work of another expert sent to investigate the disappearance of the two ships several years after they set off, Dr John Rae, who spent time with the Inuit people around the Arctic, suggested that Franklin's men had perished because of the unsuitability of the climate and had resorted to cannibalism. The writer Charles Dickens rose to the posthumous defence of Franklin, even though Rae's theories and research were later vindicated. The novel is set in two different settings. One is Van Diemen's Land in the early 1840s. Sir John Franklin is governor and his wife, Lady Jane, a woman torn between conventionality and warmth, decides to adopt an orphaned native girl, Mathinna. This is an industrious attempt to carry out a social experiment mingled in with a maternal urge that Lady Jane finds distasteful in herself. Mathinna is taken away from a culture in which fellow tribesmen and women are dying at an alarming rate despite the patronising and paternalistic attempts by a Presbyterian carpenter turned preacher to 'civilise' them. The young girl is uprooted from her culture and taken to the governor's house where assiduous attempts are made to educate her. The failings of a dismal stream of incompetent tutors and governesses are misinterpreted as an inability to learn, and Mathinna is left to play and enjoy her privileged life. But then events take an ugly turn and Mathinna's life is changed forever. Sir John decides to set off on the ill-fated expedition, and he is never heard from again. The second strand of the story is set in London some 9 years after Sir John set off on the doomed journey. Charles Dickens is established as a respected writer in London but is filled with ennui privately. He has grown tired of his wife, who has become fat and listless after giving birth to ten children, and is scarred by the death of his youngest daughter. Dickens is summoned by Lady Jane, now resettled in London, to help clear the reputation of her vanished husband in the face of damaging suggestions of cannibalism by Dr John Rae. The most mesmeric parts of the novel are those dealing with Mathinna's life. The changes wrought in her existence and the catastrophic results of this ill-conceived and inconsistent social experiment are gut-wrenching and compellingly evoked. A theme running through the story is desire - the repression of it by stiff upper-lipped Englishmen, the way suppressed human urges can boil over, the methods by which it can lead to salvation or ruin. Flanagan combines a taut ability to narrate events, an ability to create convincing characters, and a wry, observant wit. Sir John's body is said to give 'no more appearance of an active intelligence than a well-tended pumpkin.' And his dullness is mischievously evoked: 'She (Lady Jane) talked to him of history, landscapes, picturesque ruins and her sensations of vertigo when, as a child, she gathered with vast crowds of the lowliest of London to watch Byron's funeral parade and thought she might fall forever. He replied with reports of navigation, Admiralty regulations, auroras, and how delightful reindeer tongues were to eat when properly cooked, the skin peeling off like a sock...The prospect of eating something redolent of feet notwithstanding, she liked his seriousness, which she mistook for an achievement in which she might share.' Wanting did not disappoint - it's a mesmeric read, written with acuity and panache. The only misgiving I have about novels that fictionalize real-life historical figures is where the line should be drawn at creating fictional characteristics and actions. In Jay Parini's The Last Station, Tolstoy's last few years were imagined with the aid of many diaries kept by those closest to him, and Parini was careful not to imbue Tolstoy with any controversial traits. Sir John Franklin is long dead and it's unlikely that any existing relatives will be upset by the imagined elements of this story, but caution might be wise with more recent public figures. But taken as a novel, as it's intended to be, Wanting is a haunting tale which will not be easily forgotten. It's a tragic story, beautifully told, and Flanagan richly deserves the praise that has been heaped his way.
  2. If First Person were a first novel, the rejection letters would say the publishers did not know how to position the text. Because this is part novel, part memoir. Part psychological thriller, part dissection of the writing and publishing industry. For the most part, it is a highly readable and intriguing work. Basically, the story is that in 1992 an aspiring (and unpublished) Tasmanian writer, Kif Kehlmann, is offered a contract to ghost write an autobiography of a fraudster, Ziggy Heidl, who is going to jail in six weeks. The lure is a $10,000 contract – enough to persuade Kif away from his heavily pregnant wife to spend time, holed up in the publisher’s Port Melbourne office, with a taciturn and evasive Ziggy. As time trickles through Kif’s fingers, and as the larger-than-life publisher Gene Paley gets increasingly twitchy, Kif plumbs the depths of despair. Oh, and Kif has been warned not to divulge any personal details by Ziggy’s minder Ray – who not entirely coincidentally turns out to have been Kif’s childhood friend. Much of the novel is spent trying to work out just who Ziggy is. He claims to have been born and raised in Adelaide, yet speaks with a German accent. He was CEO of a large safety-based organisation that secured multi-million dollar loans from banks, but was also rumoured to have been involved in a criminal underworld where his business adversaries met sticky ends. He appears to be desperate for money – his $250,000 fee dwarfs that of his ghost writer – yet he seems to have no major expenses and will not need money in prison. He is simply unknowable. And that is Kif’s problem as he has to create the character at the heart of the autobiography. Apparently much of the novel is, in a sense, autobiographical. As an aspiring writer, Richard Flanagan landed a six week job ghost-writing an autobiography for a German-Australian fraudster who shot himself three weeks into the process. And through the fictionalisation of this story, we learn a great deal about the publishing industry – or at least Richard Flanagan’s perspective on it. This includes air-headed publicists, lazy publishers who sit back while writers do the work for subsistence wages, vainglorious premises, A-list writers with obscene riders for appearances at publicity events, unfair contracts, and a general dis-interest in the truth. At times, it feels a bit like a whinge but Flanagan’s writing is good enough to keep the reader interested. Where the novel doesn’t quite work, at least for me, was the pacing. The first 10% is a slow burn and doesn’t really grab the reader. Then there’s a lot of really compelling stuff; a really satisfying middle. Then, the final 20% - set 20 or more years later when Kif has become famous – feels overly long and a bit tacked on. It does offer a new perspective through which to re-appraise the Ziggy storyline but without being truly persuasive about how Kif could have got from there to here. The magic, for me, was in the relationship between Ziggy and Kif, each needing the other but unwilling to admit as much. And for that to work they both need to be there together. Overall, though, an intriguing and puzzling novel that follows up on the enormous success of The Narrow Road to the Deep North without trying to replicate it. ****0
  3. Dorrigo Evans is a war hero. Not only did he survive the Burma Railway, he inspired his fellow POWs as they battled for survival on The Line. He is an old man, doing the speaker circuit. Everyone he meets is happy to see him; everyone he meets is awed. Dorrigo is the personification of the Australian establishment. But rewind to his days of youth; his training to be a doctor; his enlistment in the Army and training outside Adelaide; his life and his loves. Dorrigo started out as a mere mortal; a regular guy with his virtues balanced out by his failings. He has a touch of self-depracating arrogance, but what good doctor doesn't? He seems to have no great ambition and is not driven to enlist through any obvious sense of duty or patriotism. Indeed, based on his early encounters with both friendly and enemy soldiers, he seems to reserve his most withering comments for the British. Then, the moment makes the man. As he and hundreds of fellow Australians are captured by the Japanese, he finds himself in a slave labour camp, hewing at rock with a hammer and chisel to make way for a supply railway from Siam to Burma. This is the major part of the novel. Richard Flanagan exposes us to the full horror of the conditions and their treatment at the hands of the Japanese officers and Korean guards. It's graphic. But the real interest comes from seeing the human side of the assorted prisoners and their guards. The narrative point of view switches around to give each of the characters a chance to come alive. In a film, the Aussie Diggers would all be strong jawed heroes. But here we see an assortment ranging from the naively energetic; through to the selfishly lazy; a guy learning Mein Kampf by heart; various shades of racism; bullies; jokers; friends. It's a real mixed bag and some of these heroes are not nice people at all. By the same token, it would have been easy to portray the Japanese as mindless sadists. Sure, they were brutal, but we are given an insight into the values and thought processes that went behind the brutality. Major Nakamura is portrayed almost as a victim himself, forced to deliver the completion of the railway to absurd deadlines with insufficient resources. Whilst he attaches no value to the lives of prisoners, he is concerned only with completion of The Line and duty to his superiors and the Emperor. He has contempt for prisoners of war - it would have been nobler to die in battle - he does not hate them. His crime is one of indifference. His vicious guard, the Goanna, has even less emotional investment in the project and only lives for his pay slip. The novel follows the post-war lives of some of the characters too - well, those who survive. We see the transition of ordinary people into heroes or villains according to the fortune of their side in the war. We find them largely indifferent to their destiny. Yet Richard Flanagan does not portray their fate as luck. Dorrigo, the hero, has a further chance to prove his mettle which he seizes instinctively. He really is a hero, albeit one who spends most of his time being rather ordinary and rather alone. Perhaps it is the medical training, perhaps it is his complicated life, but Dorrigo bears more than a passing resemblance to Yuri Zhivago. The themes in the novel are epic; the story is complex but always coherent. But also, the narrative can be light, humorous but it can also be heartbreakingly sad. The scenes are depicted perfectly; the imagery is so right it is like looking at a photograph. The novel may lack some of the tricks and ingenuity of other modern novels and, in a way, it feels a little old fashioned. But it achieves what it sets out to do with perfection. It's a longish novel, but it holds the attention; the reader almost daren't look away. The next time I buy an ANZAC badge or Legacy torch I will be thinking of Dorrigo and his real life counterparts. *****
  4. The Unknown Terrorist is a timely novel. It pokes at the underbelly of Sydney society featuring variously a pole dancer called The Doll; a TV producer; a possibly corrupt policeman; a dodgy intelligence officer; a man who might be a terrorist; and a woman called Wilder. The story is about being in the wrong place at the wrong time; about media hysteria; about the senselessness of Australia’s anti-terrorist legislation; about the dangers within the sex industry; and ultimately about prejudice. Without giving too much of the game away, The Doll is mistaken for a terrorist – the Unknown Terrorist of the title. But unlike many of the novels where the innocent suspect is an angel as pure as the driven snow, The Doll is at least a co-contributor to her own misfortune. Pretty much everything she does compounds the suspicion levelled against her; she takes terrible decisions. She feels real, fallible, complex. The novel as a whole is complex, operating on a number of different levels; part thriller; part political comment; part personal/emotional. Richard Flanagan tells a compelling story; the detail is lurid and exaggerated, but the novel is still compelling. In the future, when people ask what was Australia like in 2006, they could do worse than read The Unknown Terrorist. It defines the time. *****
  5. Before you even start reading this I'm going to let you know that I'm still thinking WHAT?!?! about this book, I finished it an hour ago and have read what a few of the papers had to say about it. Gould's Book of Fish is set in Tasmania, Australia. An 'antique' dealer (faker) finds this book in a junk shop and becomes obsessed with proving that it is geuine. The little book is described as containing paintings of fish, with dense script surrounding the images and trapped on scraps of paper tucked into the book, the handwriting is crabbed and a mix of colours as the writer has had to make ink from whatever he can find around him. Up untill then everything is clear, then you get to actually read 'The Book of Fish'. Gould is a convict, imprisoned on the island. He is sent each day to work for one of the wealthy men of the island, a scientist who claims he wants to categorise the fish in the area, with a limited ability to paint Gould sets to work. We then hear Gould talkig about his paintings and his growing obsession with fish, as well as his afairs with a local black woman, the murder of aboriginies, and the treatment of the convicts among many things far more confusing.
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