Reading room: lat­est books

Richard Flana­gan strikes gold again with this Faus­tian tale about a pen­ni­less writer, says Juliet Rieden.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

First Per­son by Richard Flana­gan, Pen­guin/Ran­dom House.

When, as a young man and yet to be­come an award-win­ning nov­el­ist, Richard Flana­gan was of­fered a gig to ghost­write Australian fraud­ster John Friedrich’s mem­oir for a princely $10,000, he saw it as a lucky break.

Here was a chance to ditch his labour­ing job and earn much-needed cash – his wife was six months preg­nant with twins – and fund his own writ­ing. Friedrich was about to stand trial and cer­tain to be con­victed, and Flana­gan had six weeks to com­plete the bi­og­ra­phy. Then, just days be­fore the court case, the con man was found with a bul­let in his head, a sup­posed sui­cide. The sub­se­quent opus, Co­de­name Iago, wasn’t Flana­gan’s finest hour, but work­ing with Friedrich was a uniquely un­set­tling ex­pe­ri­ence that stayed with him for more than a quar­ter of a cen­tury and be­came the in­spi­ra­tion for this dark and in­tox­i­cat­ing new novel.

“He fright­ened me a great deal,” Flana­gan tells me, “but he was, in fair­ness, a very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter to the con man in my novel, Siegfried Heidl, who is evil.”

Heidl is in­deed an ex­tra­or­di­nary char­ac­ter, who, in Flana­gan’s hands, also be­comes chill­ingly se­duc­tive. The book is told in the first per­son by rak­ish Kif Kehlmann, the writer who is hired by Siegfried Heidl to im­mor­talise his life. Kehlmann later moves into re­al­ity TV.

It takes a while to delve into the nar­ra­tive, but per­se­vere – soon you are en­veloped by the slip­pery and poi­sonous world of Heidl. There’s a film noir, Ray­mond Chan­dler feel to the writ­ing; it’s gritty and preg­nant with earthy sto­ry­telling. Yet the novel is also prob­ing on big ques­tions, such as truth and fic­tion, and the am­bi­gu­ity of right and wrong in mod­ern times. “We blame our lead­ers, but it is us who have lost our courage,” ex­plains Flana­gan. “The present time feels like a fog and the truth is only a dis­tant, dim light. But that light is there; we need to re­dis­cover the courage to walk to­wards it.”

What also de­lights is Flana­gan’s pow­er­ful prose. The scene of Kif’s wife giv­ing birth to twins is an ex­cru­ci­at­ing and evoca­tive mess of raw emo­tion, which will have you gasp­ing for air. When the sec­ond baby is born within its translu­cent am­ni­otic sac, Kif spies his baby boy. “He had blue eyes, an un­earthly china blue, large and open as a sum­mer sky,” writes Flana­gan. “In the dimly lit ward, those eyes gazed steadily and calmly at me. The enor­mity of it, the in­signif­i­cance of me, ev­ery­thing at that mo­ment sud­denly made sense and was as it should be.” Kif then loses grip on what should be, with shock­ing reper­cus­sions, in what is a tour de force from a great con­tem­po­rary writer.

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