AS SHE LAY DYING
There is a telling moment in Life After Death, the 2015 BBC documentary about Richard Flanagan. All the Tasmanian writer’s novels are addressed chronologically during the film. Flanagan is prompted in each instance to explain the genesis of a work: the real-life inspiration, or those biographical or historical facts on which a particular fiction is based. All of which, dutifully and fluently, he does.
But when asked about the origins of Gould’s Book of Fish (2001), the book Flanagan himself and many others regard as his best, he is momentarily nonplussed. After a brief pause he admits: ‘‘It came from my imagination.’’
Recall that response in relation to The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. It is the only other novel of Flanagan’s to issue exclusively from that mysterious region where the creative writer may freely notate their dreams without making the usual compromises with reality.
The result is a book in which workaday realism is increasingly marbled with magical effects. It is a novel whose efforts to be beautiful in the traditional sense — to reflect with affection, grace and insight what it is to be alive today; ‘‘to render’’, in Joseph Conrad’s unashamedly grand formulation, ‘‘the highest kind of justice to the visible universe’’ — are arrayed against another, far meaner proposition: that the world is set to be lost, because of us. That we have destroyed it through our actions and are now living through its flickering out.
This is a novel centrally concerned with the concatenation of environmental crises in which we find ourselves trapped, one that escapes the mire of consensus and dissensus that surrounds discussion of climate change by resorting to an older form of reality-shaping. It tells a story, pure and simple — at times, almost a fable — about an old woman named Francie who is dying in a Hobart hospital, and taking her sweet time about it.
The fault does not belong to Frances, to give the woman her true Christian name. It is her three grown children who have decided, following a series of turns suffered by their mother, that she must be kept alive at any cost.
Terzo, third son and self-made venture capitalist, has the money to ensure his mother’s care, while Anna, a Sydney-based architect, has the sharp-edged personality to impose their collective will. Only poor, stuttering Tommy — failed artist and parttime cray fisherman, the one child who stayed in Tasmania to care for his mother — is uncertain about his sibling’s determination to keep their mother alive.
Meanwhile, somewhere offstage, the shade of another sibling haunts each of them, albeit differently: Ronnie, the golden boy, who, decades earlier, hanged himself in the shed of the family home.
Flanagan scatters this information with studied casualness throughout the opening sections. His prose is like an AM radio
Richard Flanagan’s new novel explores how we have failed to love