Troubled novel captures a bad summer

By Rhonda Dredge

Richard Flanagan lays it on thick in his latest novel, which is front-runner to win the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for 2021.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is told from the bedside of a dying woman in Hobart.

Francie’s children don’t want her to die and they approve intervention after intervention.

Her predicament has no solution because medical science has advanced to such a state that it can keep a body working.

Francie wants to go but Flanagan, making a point about our lack of respect for natural processes, needs her to feed his tragedy.

This is a polemical novel that reads as a treatise on climate change just as much, if not more, than a family drama.

The protagonist, Francie’s daughter Anna, is addicted to the newsfeed on her phone and she taps into global and local disasters in moments of trouble, of which there are many.

The novel is one of four short-listed for the fiction award, which will be announced at the end of January, and for sheer mental energy, it deserves to win. 

The narrative is contemporary and relevant, demonstrating how our fears dominate the discourse.

Fiction has a chance to remake the world, an opportunity Flanagan does not take. Instead the lives of Frannie’s children, Anna and Terzo, are successful on the surface but they have become simulations.

Terzo, a venture capitalist, is determined to use his influence to get the best possible treatment for Francie. It all depends on the funds and they’re always in Switzerland.

Flanagan has a few dark jokes at the expense of Terzo and his cycling mates.

One has a face so barren of feature it reminds Anna of a hotel key card. He’s able to reboot at a moment’s notice as “if he had found the appropriate information in a remote cloud saver.”

Mostly, however, doom prevails and death and destruction wipe out characters with little faith in our ability to fight off a major extinction event. Humans, as we know them, are disappearing. Just a few caring ones remain and they are beyond commenting on the demise of their brethren.

Flanagan has a valid point. Tasmania has been overrun by tourists. Bushfires were raging when he was writing. Smoke was hanging over the cities.

Last summer was apocalyptic and this novel, written swiftly, captures that moment in history.

The prose is hot, passionate, Dystopic and unrelenting with a few warnings that should be heeded.

This summer was the opposite – mild, modest and caring – with most Australians grateful with what our country has to offer (but you can’t be too careful).

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