Wanting: Book summary and reviews of Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Wanting

A Novel

by Richard Flanagan

Wanting
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  • Published in USA  May 2009
    272 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Book Summary

It is 1841. In the remote penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land, a barefoot aboriginal girl sits for a portrait in a red silk dress. She is Mathinna, the adopted daughter of the island’s governor, Sir John Franklin, and his wife, Lady Jane, and the subject of a grand experiment in civilization—one that will determine whether science, Christianity, and reason can be imposed on savagery, impulse, and desire. Years later, somewhere in the Arctic, Sir John Franklin has disappeared with his crew and two ships on an expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage. England is horrified by reports of cannibalism filtering back from search parties, no one more so than the most celebrated novelist of the day, Charles Dickens, for whom Franklin’s story becomes a means to plumb the frozen depths of his own life.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"[T]hough Flanagan has a tendency to hammer home his ideas, his prose is strong and precise, and the depiction of desire's effects is sublime." - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. As always, Flanagan's prose is beautifully crafted, at once elegant and astonishing. This is Flanagan's most accessible work to date, and it should draw new fans." - Library Journal

"Starred Review." - Kirkus Reviews

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Reader Reviews

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Cariola

My Best Read of 2016 So Far
What a remarkable book! Flanagan mingles two stories, both based on real persons, who meet in 1854. Charles Dickens is at the center of the first. He is despondent over the recent death of his daughter Dora, and his marriage is falling apart. There seems to be no joy in his life, and he has no idea how to get it back. Dickens is contacted by Lady Jane Franklin, who wants him to write a defense of her husband, Sir John Franklin, former governor of Tasmania, who disappeared on an arctic expedition. Although 10 years have passed, she still has hopes that her husband survives, and she is outraged by a recent article claiming that he cannibalized his crew. The English, according to Lady Jane, just don't do that kind of thing, and she wants Dickens to write a piece that will restore his reputation. Inspired by the tale, Dickens also joins with his friend, Willkie Collins, to write and perform in a play, 'The Frozen Deep.'

Flanagan also takes us back in time to tell of the Franklins' time in Tasmania, where Lady Jane tries to instill English culture via imported statuary and paintings. She adopts a lively aboriginal girl, Mathinna, taking her from her family and doing her best to turn her into a proper English lady. For her, Mathinna is an experiment, but she also fulfills the "wanting" left by three miscarriages; for Sir John, she comes to represent another kind of "wanting"; and Mathinna herself is stuck between "wanting" the love of a new mother who believes that displays of affection are indecent and the freedom of the life she once knew.

A number of readers have complained that the two stories don't really connect, but I believe they do, on a number of levels. The book is, of course, in part a commentary on English colonization and its treatment of native peoples. It's also a statement on what is lost, both at home and abroad, in adhering to the rigid restrictions and morals of Victorian English society: not only Mahinna but Dickens and the Franklins suffer as well. Flanagan cleverly plays on the double meanings of the word "wanting" as both what one desires and what one lacks.

This book just shot to the top of my list of Best Books of 2016. It's brilliant, poignant, and beautifully written. I can't wait to get to the other two books I own by this author.

Cloggie Downunder

a powerful read
Wanting is the fifth novel by award-winning Australian author, Richard Flanagan. In 1841, Mathinna, an orphaned young Aboriginal girl, one of the remaining Van Diemen’s Land indigenous who were kept on Flinders Island, was plucked from the “care” of George Augustus Robinson, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, to become the subject of an experiment in civilisation of the savage, conducted by the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Sir John Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane Franklin.

Mathinna loved the red silk dress she was given, but hated wearing shoes. She wanted to learn to write because she knew there was magic in it. “Dear Father, I am a good little girl. I do love my father. ……come and see mee my father. ……I have got sore feet and shoes and stockings and I am very glad……..Please sir come back from the hunt. I am here yrs daughter MATHINNA”. But when her (dead) father failed to come to her after several letters, her passion for writing faded. “And when she discovered her letters stashed in a pale wooden box….she felt not the pain of deceit for which she had no template, but the melancholy of disillusionment”.

In tandem with Mathinna’s story, Flanagan relates incidents in the life of Charles Dickens, some twenty years later. The tenuous link between the two narratives is this: when Sir John Franklin is missing in the Arctic on his search for the North West Passage, Lady Jane asks Dickens to help refute allegations of cannibalism made by explorer, Dr John Rae. Dickens also writes and stars in a play about Franklin’s lost expedition, during which he meets Ellen Ternan, the woman for whom he leaves his wife.

Flanagan’s interpretation of Mathinna’s life is certainly interesting: his extensive research into the lifestyle and common practices in the colony in the mid-nineteenth century is apparent, and he portrays very powerfully the mindset that led to the virtual extermination of the native population. While the Dickens narrative does have interesting aspects, it is so far removed from the Tasmanian story as to seem somewhat irrelevant, more of an interruption than an enhancement.

Flanagan states in his Author’s Note that “The stories of Mathinna and Dickens, with their odd but undeniable connection, suggested to me a meditation on desire-the cost of its denial, the centrality and force of its power in human affairs. That, and not history, is the true subject of Wanting”. Perhaps this statement would be better placed in a preface so that readers do not find themselves distracted wondering about the relevance of the Dickens narrative. Excellent prose make this, nonetheless, a powerful read.

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Author Information

Richard Flanagan Author Biography

Photo: © Pan Macmillan Australia

Descended from Irish convicts transported to Van Diemens Land (later renamed Tasmania) during the Great Famine, Richard Flanagan was born in his native island in 1961, the fifth of six children. He spent his childhood in the mining town of Rosebery and left school at sixteen to work as a bush laborer. He later attended the University of Tasmania, graduating with first class honours in 1982.  The following year he was awarded a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford University.  He later worked as a laborer and river guide.

He wrote four history books before turning to fiction.  His first novel, the much celebrated Death of a River Guide (1994), tells the tale of Aljaz Cosini, a guide on the Franklin River who lies drowning as he relives his life and the lives of his ...

Full Biography

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