By Richard FlanaganFiction Penguin Random House
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is an ember storm of a novel. This is Booker Prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan at his most moving – and astonishing – best.
In a world of perennial fire and growing extinctions, Anna’s aged mother is dying—if her three children would just allow it. Condemned by their pity to living she increasingly escapes through her hospital window into visions of horror and delight.
When Anna’s finger vanishes and a few months later her knee disappears, Anna too feels the pull of the window. She begins to see that all around her others are similarly vanishing, but no one else notices. All Anna can do is keep her mother alive. But the window keeps opening wider, taking Anna and the reader ever deeper into a strangely beautiful story about hope and love and orange-bellied parrots.
‘The frames that held conversation – time, logic, grammar – were collapsing.’
Richard Flanagan’s eighth novel is an utterly original, raw-boned, and moving examination of humanity.
Through a family’s reckoning with an ailing parent, we see a profound engagement with the important issues of our time.
It’s a book about visibility and invisibility – animals disappear because of the fate we’ve consigned them to, while the elderly are airbrushed from relevance. Indeed, Flanagan writes of illness and ageing with the honesty of few writers – how it exposes us in ways we cannot predict, nor fully comprehend.
The narrative is unpredictable, yet inexorable in its final destination. It speaks of grief in both form and content – sentences fragment as the world falls into disarray, and thoughts fall from characters in luminous streams of consciousness.
Flanagan deftly shows the contradictions of our modern world: an elderly woman confronts death, while her children ignore life; people are constantly connected, yet riven by loneliness; beauty is offered as a gift, but mistaken for horror. It’s a story of absences, of that which is unspoken, and yet it tells an essential truth: we bear witness, yet remain blind to the most important moments of our lives.
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams looks directly at imperfection and makes it almost perfect – a deeply humane work by a writer, perhaps, without peer.
It's impossible to say how the vanishing began or if it was already ended, thought Anna. Or, for that matter, how to begin. Whether it's about me or her or him, whether it's she or we or you, whether it's now or then or sometime soon. And not having even the right voice tense pronoun makes it so much harder. Perhaps even impossible. Were words? as Francie pointed.
Well: were they what?
As if they too were already then falling apart, so much ash and soot soon to fall, so much smoke to suck down. As if all that can be said is we say you or if that then. Them us were we you?
Maybe Francie is happier not being able t-t-to say anything, Tommy stutters. I mean, is translating experience into words an achievement at all? Or is it just the cause of all our unhappiness? Is it our tragedy and our ongoing conceit? The world gets carried away with words, phrases, and elaborate paragraphs. One word leads to another and soon enough you have affairs, wars, genocide and the Anthropocene. Silence, according to Tommy when in his cups, is the only place where truth can be found.
And what do we have instead? Noise-babble everywhere.
For a long time he had been aware of a growing scream that was within him and outside him, continued Anna's brother. He tried to contain that scream, it made him stutter, but it kept insisting. The world grew daily hotter and smokier and nightly noisier: more construction noise more insects disappearing, more road noise more fish stocks collapsing, more news noise more frogs and snakes dying out, more brexitrump climatecoal more and more, more and more fucking tourists everywhere, even here in Tasmania even here at the end of the world, well they were queueing at the top of Everest what could you expect?—more jackhammers more reversing trucks and falling and rising cherry pickers b-b-beeping, 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 until even his dreams filled with a nightmare of noise movement growth that seen1ed to benefit no one and only grew things that left people unsettled unhappy that made people poorer; an ever greater panic expressed as movement, a fear of stillness, tourism that was meant to save the island had become the very opposite, tourists even shat in the front yards of locals what the fuck was that saying? They're pulling poor fucking penguins out of their holes holding them up for selfies to Instagram, who were these people? They came in budget flights they came in cruise liners-every year larger, louder and more childish death stars betopped with ever bigger water slides bungee jumps and video screens pushing out just beneath their haze of bunker fuel smoke forced hap-hap-happy, says Tommy. Far-far-fucking penitentiaries f-f-faking fun floating over Hobart looks like Noddytown does everyone want to be seven?
Yes no maybe.
Just over the mountain behind the city the fires are burning ever closer, every day news reports social media feeds pictures of evacuation centres crowded with hundreds of people it was like a war they were like refugees it was a war and they were losing who was winning who? On his phone the government was calling for more coalmines new coal-fired power stations they'd jail you for twenty-one years if you protested the same as murder now in Australia for calling bullshit on fire they couldn't get enough fire and smoke but he was scared, in truth, he was t-t-terrified, he had had enough. Tasmania was where you came to get away from all that shit but now it was even here, ancient forests vanishing, beaches covered in crap, wild birds vomiting supermarket shopping bags, a world disappearing some terrible violence returning for a final reckoning.
How what why who?
And as there was more and more of all these things, says Tommy, there seemed less and less of the world maybe less and less of him. The ladybirds gone soldier beetles bluebottles gone earwigs you never saw now gone beautiful brilliantly coloured Christmas beetles whose gaudy metallic shells they collected as kids gone flying ant swarms gone frog call in spring cicada drone in summer gone gone giant emperor gum moths big as tiny birds, powdery Persian rug wings thrumming of a summer night gone and all around them the quolls potoroos pardalotes swift parrots going going going. There was way less of everything, says Tommy, she should come with him crayfishing why would anyone? The great kelp forests gone abalone gone crayfish gone! Gone! Gone! Something was wrong he felt it as a pain as a sickness growing within him, growing going gone, a tightness of chest and flesh a shallowness of breathing, day after day night after night. You hear it you can't stop hearing you know?
Did she think the problem was love? No one knows how to love was love gone? was it? His own heart felt smaller than a phone, did she know what he means did she know did she?
Anna told Tommy he did go on. But she felt it. She felt it eating her. She felt something going. But what was it? She felt her phone vibrate. What happened? What went wrong? Sorry, Tommy, Anna said. She just need want escape this that just check sorry something everything anything.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist