WANTING by Richard Flanagan

Book Quote:

“The mark of wisdom and civilization was the capacity to conquer desire, to deny it and crush it.  Otherwise, one was no better than …the convict, the Esquimau, the savage: all [were] enslaved not by the bone around their brain…but by their passions.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Mary Whipple (MAY 05, 2009)

Wanting by Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan emphasizes, by its ambiguous title, two of the most contradictory characteristics of Queen Victoria’s reign—the “wanting,” or desire, to conquer other lands and bring “civilization” to them, and the “want,” or lack, of empathy and respect for the people and cultures which they deliberately destroy in the process.  The same contradictory characteristics are also reflected in the personal relationships of the socially prominent men and women of the era, some of whom we meet here.  Lust, desire, or  physical “wanting” are feelings  to be overcome because they are “uncivilized,” but men routinely indulge their passions with those far “beneath” them–servants, prostitutes, native women—people considered outside the limits of educated and wise society.

“Wanting” with its two meanings—“desire” and “lack”—forms the thematic underpinning of this novel, with intriguing plot lines and settings which move from the British penal colony of Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania), with its on-going battles to control, if not eliminate, the aborigines, to London’s highest levels of aristocratic and literary society.  Famed explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife Jane, who represent the Crown in Van Dieman’s Land, share the stage with aborigine King Romeo, his wild and mysterious daughter Mathinna, an assortment of local workers and tradesmen, and eventually, with Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and even, on one occasion, the royal families of Europe.

The novel opens in 1839, as the Protector, a preacher, oversees the resettlement of a small group of wretched aborigines from Van Dieman’s Land to remote Flinders Island.  There he is mystified by the incurable illnesses and increasingly “monstrous deaths” of the people under his “protection.”   He fears that somehow he may be responsible, but he does not know how—he has been careful to demand that the aborigines adopt western dress, eat a western diet, follow a western way of life, and learn to pray Christian prayers.  When their leader, King Romeo, dies an agonizing death, the Protector saws off his head for further study by British scientists.

Ten pages (and fifteen years) later, Lady Jane Franklin, wife of Sir John Franklin, the former Governor of Van Dieman’s Land, is in London, trying to raise money for new expeditions to discover the fate of her explorer husband, his ships, and their crews, lost for nine years in the Arctic.  She has displayed the skull of King Romeo to phrenologists, who have concluded that the King was a savage, enslaved by his passions.  Ironies abound.  Lady Franklin is frantic to find an influential ally who can help her quell the rumor that Sir John Franklin and his crew became so desperate during their final days in the Arctic that they engaged in cannibalism and other “savage” behavior.  Charles Dickens and his friend Wilkie Collins, the two most popular writers in England during the period, answer Lady Jane’s call.

As the action moves back and forth between Van Dieman’s Land and London and from 1839 through the 1840s and 1850s, Flanagan gives depth to the bleak picture of colonial life, creating an emotionally wrenching portrait of Mathinna, orphaned child of King Romeo, as she is wrested from her countrymen on Flinders Island and brought into the home of the ambitious Lady Jane Franklin.  Determined to prove that this savage can be civilized, Lady Jane forces the child to imitate a proper British young lady in her education, dress, and demeanor, allowing her no connections to her past but providing nothing of value in its place.   Sir John, believing that this experiment is doomed to failure from the start, is more committed to using force than persuasion.

While he is developing the characters of Mathinna, Lady Jane and Sir John Franklin, Flanagan also develops the character of Charles Dickens in parallel scenes.  Frustrated in his relationship with his cold wife and overwhelmed by his responsibilities to her and their ten children, he believes that “we all have appetites and desire,” but that “only the savage agrees to sate them.”  Throwing himself into his work to stay sane, he finds himself, ironically, attracted to one of the actresses in his play, The Frozen Deep.

The constantly changing time periods and revolving settings are sometimes challenging to follow, and the connections among the various plot lines are a bit tenuous (and may be historically inaccurate), but Flanagan creates lively characters who reflect their cultures and their hypocrisies.  Numerous parallels and ironies between the “civilized” British characters and the “savages” show the arrogance of power, while Flanagan’s vivid descriptions of the characters’ surroundings add to the sense of immediacy and bring the often brutal action to life.  Life in Van Dieman’s Land is ugly—pitiless—grinding down the characters (and the reader).  Three years after the departure of the Franklins, life for all the people they have left behind is worse than it was before their arrival.  An unusual novel which shows the damaging effects of empire-building, on both the conquered and on the arrogant “conquerors,” Wanting makes the reader understand why the surviving aborigines ultimately believe “the world was not run by God but by the Devil.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 3 readers
PUBLISHER: Atlantic Monthly Press (May 12, 2009)
REVIEWER: Mary Whipple
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Richard Flanagan
EXTRAS: Wikipedia page on Richard Flanagan

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May 5, 2009 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Australia, Facing History, Literary, Reading Guide, World Lit, y Award Winning Author