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.