AS SHE LAY DY­ING

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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