Daily Archives: February 16, 2009

‘Wanting’ by Richard Flanagan


2008, 261 p.

I haven’t see Baz Luhrman’s Australia (and nor do I think I shall), but I wasn’t surprised to hear that Richard Flanagan had worked on the screenplay.  From the comments of those I’ve spoken to who have seen it, the film  seems to elicit a shifting discomfort in its audience – as if the viewer is not quite sure whether it’s a parody or not; whether to go with it, resist it or mock it.

It seems that Flanagan has quite a skill at unsettling his reader by playing around within genres.  As with Luhrman, you’re always very much aware of the author there, constructing, drawing together, working, and so the work becomes performance as much as narrative.  This was particularly the case in Gould’s Book of Fish which I think is probably the best ‘Australian’ novel of the last five years- a wild, inventive riff on a historical character that was also beautifully, carefully, lovingly presented as artefact.

Wanting is in much the same vein. It  plays within the historical fiction genre, leaping across continent and plotline to draw together Charles Dickens, Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin,  the young Aboriginal girl Mathinna, George Augustus Robinson, Wilkie Collins- a whole cast of mid-century ‘historical’ characters.  As a reader, you’re constantly aware of Flanagan moulding and threading his different storylines, and his deliberate construction of ironies, opposites and parallels in the surface and ‘true’ stories in the book.  I noticed that he used the term “motley” several times in the book and on his website, and he uses it in the sense of the costume, the trappings of the fool who jeers and capers while he tells the truth.

Flanagan on his website shrugs off the research he has done for this book:

These notes are for those readers who wish to discover something more of the historical truth behind some of the characters and events mentioned in Wanting. Perhaps because I am drawn to questions which history cannot answer, and because these characters and events thus become the motley thrown over the concerns that are the true subject of this novel, I am disinclined to research. Accordingly, I have leaned heavily on a very small post made up of only a few books. I do not know if they are definitive, only that they were useful.

He’s being too modest here: the historical research holds up well, but it doesn’t hamstring him as it so often tends to do with ‘historical fiction’ in more reverent, tentative hands.   He uses it as a playground, a trampoline, an arena in which he can write about bigger truths that cannot be held by a single act in a single lifestory.  The quote from the back cover “We have in our lives only a few moments” has all of the schmaltz and extravagance of  Baz Luhrman’s red-curtain trilogy- in fact, for me, the cover evokes  red velvet, sunset and blood-, and yet the phrase also captures the paradox of the historical ‘actor’ and the banality, humanity, and  tragedy of small actions, petty desires and fleeting decisions when they are writ large on the historical stage.