The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

Families are funny things; they can be the source of great strength, but also great cruelties, humiliations, and sadness. In a soulless Hobart hospital, Francie’s three adult children gather round her bed. The prognosis for Francie is not good; she is coming to the end of her life. It has been a good life in the eyes of Tommy, an unfulfilled life according to Anna, and a wasted one according to Terzo.

Tommy is the bumbling ‘unsuccessful’ child, a failed artist who gets by with odd jobs; he’s the sibling his brother and sister rely on to affirm their apparent success. Anna is a highly successful Sydney architect with a hidden sadness. Terzo’s in venture capital; he’s bombastic, overconfident, and a charming bully. Haunting them all is the untimely death of their brother Ronnie.

Tommy is the only child who has remained in Tasmania and has, in his clumsy way, cared for their mother. For Anna and, especially, for Terzo, there is a powerful sense that they can redeem themselves for abandoning their mother by keeping her alive now. Tommy’s pleas for mercy are treated with disdain, ignored, shouted over; it’s the way the sibling have always been with Tommy. As Francie’s condition deteriorates, their obsessive need to stop her from dying grows. They demand, and get, via influence and money, excessive interventions that needlessly keep Francie alive. Before she drifts into a catatonic state, Francie’s last words to Anna are, ‘Let me go’. Anna’s heartless response of ‘Go where?’ comes even as she demands more interventions.

Meanwhile, outside the hospital, the world is falling apart. Bushfires rage near Hobart, through areas that have never seen fire; later, fires encroach upon the very outskirts of Sydney. It is as though the world is drifting away. Things start happening to Anna’s body that are a metaphor for what’s happening outside: first a finger disappears, just vanishes without pain or scar, then a knee, then a breast, then bits of her son, then other people.

There is great sadness in this book, but it is also bleakly comical. Richard Flanagan is pushing his writing to new limits. The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is his most audacious, most accomplished work yet. It will challenge the reader, but the rewards will be great!

Mark Rubbo is the managing director of Readings.

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The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

Richard Flanagan

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