November 2020

by Helen Elliott

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan
The Booker Prize winner’s allegorical new novel about the permanence of loss

Francie, who is 86, is dying in the Royal Hobart Hospital. Her three children – Anna, a successful architect; Terzo, a hard man of business; and Tommy, a failed artist and sometime deckhand – are at her bedside. Anna and Terzo have rushed from interstate, summoned by Tommy, the only child to remain in Tasmania. For years he has tended their mother as the time between the visits of the others stretched further apart. They have their own lives to live, far from the pristine state at the end of the earth. They love their mother, but their ordinary lives consume them.

Francie has looked as if she might die for the past few years, but she has always miraculously pulled through. She insists on living. And when her children are faced with the choice to decide whether she should live or not, they discover she has taught them well. Although it is not as straight-up as this. They are all well into mid life but their mother, a woman who understood and lived in the farthest reaches of love, who unfailingly put them first, has always been there. She can’t/won’t/shouldn’t die. Mid life, and beyond, their mother is still the centre that holds their lives together. 

Outside the quiet hospital room, smoke from bushfires engulfs Hobart in a terrible new version of summer. Tommy is panicked. The forests are no longer pristine, the beaches are covered with litter and he sees “more tourist coaches clogging small streets more rolling suitcases click-clack-clacking in the street more Winifuckingbagos more airbnfuckingbs more locals sleeping in tents all around the city”. The humans splash down from a ruined wider world to enjoy the fabled “nature”, and nature vanishes under their weight. Tommy lists what has gone: ladybirds, soldier beetles, bluebottles, earwigs, Christmas beetles, emperor gum moths, the great kelp forests. There is less of everything.

And Anna, competent, shadowy Anna – who finds Tommy’s phone calls about their mother exaggerated, who has a son who won’t leave his room and a lover who feigns understanding – notices that one of her fingers is missing. It is her left-hand ring finger, the finger chosen to display serious commitment in an old tradition. It seems to have vanished overnight. She doesn’t really believe it, there is no pain despite an ascending anguish, and, as no one else seems to notice, she carries on, functioning as usual. 

If Anna’s missing finger and, later, other parts of her body are metaphor, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (Knopf Australia) is allegory. Richard Flanagan, who steadfastly writes from a private world of myth, story, and deep erudition and emotion about nature and literature, is an instinctive allegorist. Look! Here is the beauty of the mother and here is the beauty of the earth. Both are at the end of their lives. Both dwindle, revive, then dwindle again. This time, for Francie, there will be no revival despite her fight and vitality, despite her purpose in life: to love. 

Readers of the Booker Prize winner’s writing in the past have noticed a quality of earnestness that sometimes subsided into ponderousness. Not here. This takes measured reading, but every word has the ragged catch of sincerity, the allegory is bright and the instruction clear. Grief? No, this is not about that overworked word, it is about a stonier word: loss. The permanence of loss.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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