Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Richard Flanagan’

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

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.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan



I’ve been keen to read The Sound of One Hand Clapping since reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian author Richard Flanagan, but also putting it off, as I was expecting a misery-fest. I wasn’t far wrong. This story is beautifully written, but so sad…

The Sound of One Hand Clapping is the story of a migrant father and daughter living in a remote part of Tasmania during the 1950’s. Bojan Buloh came to Australia for a new life after leaving Slovenia after World War 2, where he witnessed and was the victim of atrocities which I found hard to read about. In Tasmania Bojan met Maria, the love of his life, and married her. They had a daughter, Sonja.

When Sonja was three years old, Maria, who had also come from Slovenia after the war, walked out into the snow with a cardboard suitcase packed with her life’s treasures, leaving Bojan to bring up Sonja alone.

In Tasmania, Bojan found himself building dams, back-breaking, unskilled work, alongside other European migrants with similar background stories to his. He drank heavily, and found himself unable to live the normal, boring life Australians were known for and which he had wished for. When he drank, Bojan verbally and physically abused Sonja. The abuse continued throughout her childhood and teenage years.

Sonja was farmed out from time to time to live with other people, but she always ended up back with Bojan. When she was old enough she left home and went to Sydney and did not return to visit her father until the late 1980’s, when she was in her mid-thirties and pregnant.

For the story of a father and daughter who are migrants struggling to communicate their horror and loss to each other, their community or their adopted nation, The Sound of One Hand Clapping is an extraordinarily wordy, descriptive story which needs to be concentrated on and read carefully in order to be understood.

I struggled reading about Bojan’s brutality towards Sonja, all the while knowing that they loved each other. Somehow, he and Sonja accepted his violent behaviour as a cry for relief from his memories of the war in Slovenia, from losing his wife and from being unable to articulate his feelings about his soul-less work, the remote location so different from what they had hoped for and for his drinking. Understandably though, as an adult, Sonja also struggled with becoming emotionally close to anyone.

Bojan was hard on himself too, berating himself for being an illiterate ‘wog’, a derogatory term for migrants from Europe after WW2. These days ‘wog’ is an affectionate term (noting that in Australia people from ethnic backgrounds have long since claimed it for themselves), but in the 1950’s the term was an insult. Bojan was also well-aware that his behaviour was brutal and unacceptable, but he and Sonja never verbally acknowledged this, although thankfully they did find a way to face their future as a father and daughter.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a terribly sad story. Right now, I’m not sure if I can face anything else by Richard Flanagan despite the beauty of his writing.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan


The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian author Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, but don’t let that stop you from reading this book.*

Secondly, don’t be put off because most of the story takes place during World War 2. I avoid war novels and wouldn’t have read The Narrow Road to the Deep North had I realised what the setting was before starting, but as it turned out, I read most of this emotionally draining, gruelling story with a huge lump in my throat. There were times I had to stop reading because I was feeling too much to continue. I can list other books which have made me feel this way with just the fingers on one hand.

“A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare, and as he aged, rarer. Still he searched, on more Ithaca for which he was forever bound.”

And lastly, don’t be put off by the beginning of the book which doesn’t do justice to the rest of the story. It also took me a while to get used to quotation marks not being used to differentiate dialogue within the text.

He was your cobber?

Like all immigrants, he seemed to have an erring instinct for the oldest, truest words in his new language.

The story follows the life of a Tasmanian doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who for most of the book is a Japanese prisoner of war on the Burmese Railway. The story is interspersed with the story of Dorrigo’s love affair with his uncle’s wife, Amy, who for Dorrigo, no other woman ever lived up to. Later, the story switches to Dorrigo’s life after the war.

The stories of the Australian POWs while building what became known as the Death Railway in The Narrow Road to the Deep North are harrowing, but the story does not treat the characters with pity. Instead, I realised that the POWs themselves had no room in their quest for their own survival for pity, either for themselves or for anyone else, although that didn’t mean that they didn’t show kindness to each other, generosity and a spirit which made me feel overwhelmingly patriotic at times (for an Australian society which no longer exists).

“Darky Gardiner loathed Tiny, thought him a fool and would do anything to keep him alive. Because courage, survival, love–all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in them all or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.”

The way the Japanese soldiers are portrayed is interesting, in that their cruelty to the POWs is shown to be the only way they can behave and still be Japanese.

“Humans are only one of many things, and all these things long to live, and the highest form of living is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo.”

I’m taking a break from reading for a few days because I’m not ready for another story yet, as The Narrow Road to the Deep North still has too strong a hold of my heart and imagination. And yes, I’ll be working my way through other books by Richard Flanagan soon.

*My reading tastes can be quite low-brow, I often enjoy books that critics bag out, and dislike books they praise.

Happy Australia Day, everyone.

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