REVIEW

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is an eloquent expression of Richard Flanagan's anger on the page

Richard Flanagan is angry about the state of Australia's environment. Picture: Getty Images
Richard Flanagan is angry about the state of Australia's environment. Picture: Getty Images
  • The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, by Richard Flanagan. Knopf, $32.99.

It is 2019 and Richard Flanagan is angry. In his native Tasmania, fires are reducing the forests to vertical blackness, smoke and cinders are draping Hobart, "turning the air a tobacco brown. ... It was like living with a chronically sick smoker except the smoker was the world and everyone was trapped in its foul and collapsing lungs." Add the sudden extinction of creatures of the air, sea and forest, organisms whose millions of years of survival were no match for what humans do. Meanwhile, for some there were family holidays in Hawaii.

So Mr Flanagan is angry. But even someone who has the word "Booker" attached to his name - and allowing that it is a designation attaching to Australian writers with a frequency out of balance with population - even such a distinguished one needs to tell a story. So we meet 85-year old Francie and her three adult kids. She is a bit vague and wobbly. The doctors test for dementia and Parkinson's but settle instead on hydrocephalus which requires a hole into her head to drain fluid down to her stomach.

Francie is cared for by her son Tommy, an unsuccessful Hobart artist. When there is a problem, he is required to contact his older sister Anna, a prizewinning architect in Sydney, and his younger brother Terzo who works in Asia buying and selling companies and forests and oil in a strong American accent. In time, Francie develops more and more illnesses, each threatening to end her life.

At one stage, the specialist at Hobart hospital explains to the family that Francie now has a condition requiring a risky procedure. He hints that it might leave her in a near-vegetative state and asks the family whether she had given any indication of how she might view such a situation. Words like dignity and respect are used, until the three siblings agree that perhaps she should be spared the pointless cruelty of an operation and its aftermath. But Terzo and Anna later change their minds and instruct that every effort should be made to keep their mother alive.

Francie survives the operation and gradually improves, allowing Anna to return to Sydney and Terzo to wherever he lives. But she suffers more and more crises, kept alive by a diet of more than 20 pills and a "vermicelli of tubes". At one stage her kidneys collapse and the hospital decide that she is too old for dialysis. But Terzo gets to work on someone he knows from his business who knows somebody in Brisbane who has contacts in Tasmanian politics and hey presto, dialysis happens.

There is one other thread in the story. It concerns Anna who, early on, discovers that she has lost a finger. That's lost as in what you do to your golf ball on the third hole if you pull your shot too far left. No one notices, not even a doctor when she goes for a checkup; she manages fine with four fingers, so she just puts down another ball and takes a penalty and life goes on. Later, she loses a knee, which she finds she did not need and whose absence she can cover by careful couture, and later still finds one of her breasts has gone missing, absence easily covered by a few socks.

At this stage, you wonder whether Mr Flanagan is not angry at all but having a laugh at the rest of us and our concern about our bodies. Meanwhile, poor Francie goes from one medical crisis to another, kept alive at the determined behest and confused love of Terzo and Anna. Tommy is reduced to sending urgent emails when a new crisis arrives. At one stage, Anna is on her way to a conference in Bucharest. She gets Tommy's message in Singapore and books the next flight back; then the crisis passes and she books for Bucharest again, only to be greeted there by another bit of news that has her on the next flight to Sydney.

Francie's condition gets progressively worse, until "her body was little more than skin clutching the sticks of her bones". In the end, even Anna accepts that what they - doctors, nurses, family - are doing is perpetuating the wicked lie that "postponement of death was life". Francie had not "understood her children's resolve that she should live. If she had, she would have feared it more than death itself."

There is much to think about in this book. A story of how love can turn into cruelty, how guilt from a past can be turned to ruthless self-absorption, how people can be so blinded to the pain of a loved one that they imagine words can ease the suffering. In the end, Francie outlives both Anna and Terzo, the final decision on her life made by Tommy, the failure of the family.

And we return again to those disappearing body parts. They get worse; others, apart from Anna, are affected, but nobody seems to notice.

You realise that Flanagan is not after all, being funny: this is his analogue for the way that our natural world is disappearing as we look on.

This story Flanagan's anger flows on the page first appeared on The Canberra Times.