Book reviews

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is Booker Prize winning author Richard Flanagan’s latest novel.

The story is set in Tasmania and follows Anna as she and her two brothers, Tommy and Terzo, intervene to prevent their ill and elderly mother from dying. The story was set between the middle of 2019 and the end of last summer, January 2020, when Australia burned.

When 87-year old Francie had a brain bleed she was sent to a Hobart hospital from where she and her children could hear cruise ships playing The Love Boat theme as they departed Hobart. Francie felt as if she was ready to die and Tommy, who was the kindest of the siblings and who had been caring for his mother for some years supported her wishes, but Terzo and Anna, who had ganged up on Tommy since their childhood, weren’t ready to let go of their mother and pushed for her to have life-saving surgery.

Francie survived the surgery but as often happens there were no better days ahead for her, and her health continued to decline despite being propped up by dialysis and a succession of medical interventions which destroyed her quality of life.

Anna and Terzo’s continued struggle to force their mother to live was not intended to be cruel, yet it was. As Francie turned into a living skeleton, Tommy’s stutter worsened, Terzo became more aggressive and Anna’s body parts began to vanish, first a finger, then her knee and so on. Anna noticed other people’s body parts disappearing also, much like the Orange-bellied Parrots whose story of impending extinction was woven into the story along with other examples of climate changes affecting the ecology.

Looking back, I think I glossed over the disappearing body parts plot line, as did Anna and the other characters, even though it was their parts that were disappearing. Anna was concerned about her missing parts and tried to talk about the problem with other people including medical professionals, all of whom downplayed or ignored her worries when she sought their advice. The missing body parts plot line made me feel uncomfortable so I generally ignored it, just like most of us do with climate change and other issues so big and seemingly insurmountable that we don’t even know where to start.

The family story also occasionally overwhelmed me in that I connected a little too much with the plot. Over the past few years my family have had the heartache of watching parents and grandparents die after suffering similar health issues to Francie. The only difference is, we didn’t try to hold on to them, having watched a previous generation of the family do this and cause further pain and suffering for the person who was dying.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams serves to heighten awareness of enormous issues, including family power battles, ageing, grief and drug abuse, to climate change, suicide as a result of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the use of social media and work as a prop to hide from the reality of our personal lives. Although there was a lot going on the story allowed each point to be fully absorbed and thought about by the reader, including another level of thinking and connecting because of the magic realism (missing body parts).

I also felt a connection to the story because the Orange-bellied Parrots are known to have fed in wetlands near to where I live, although I don’t believe any have been seen locally in several years. Orange-bellied Parrots are critically endangered.

The following photo shows the old Werribee water tower, which had a mural painted on it last year which features Orange-bellied Parrots. The water tower was painted by Hayden Dewar and forms parts of the Australian Silo Art Trail.

Comments on: "The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan" (4)

  1. The magical realism elements would put me off, but otherwise it sounds interesting, if heartbreaking. My siblings and I always split into two over these questions regarding our mother, with my middle sister and myself being on the it’s better to let go side, while my brother and older sister were always for trying anything to extend her life even though the quality would never be there again. Fortunately we managed to get through without any falling out, but it was a tough time for all concerned, for sure.

  2. The Living Sea of Waking Dreams touched a lot of raw spots for me. I’m glad your family got through your similar times and retained respect for each other.
    I can understand that we all have different opinions and may never agree on some situations but in the book, the siblings with the loudest voices had their way. It was made clear they wanted their mother’s life to be extended because they weren’t ready to let her go which is a valid reason too, even though in my opinion it wasn’t in their mother’s best interests. I suppose that is why in court cases involving children or possibly in situations like this an advocate is appointed to represent the central person if they don’t have a voice.
    My own reaction to the magical realism was to ignore it, which I suspect was the author’s intention.

  3. I’ve read a couple by Flanagan before and appreciated them but found his work very heavy and it sounds like this is too. Interesting that you ignoring the disappearing body parts plot line almost sounds like what the reader is meant to do.

  4. I’ve found some of his books to be heavy too, but The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is lighter, although it certainly deals with big topics.
    Yes, I think my reaction to the disappearing body parts plot was what the author intended,.

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