The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan’s latest finds him fixated on two modern crises – elderly care and ecological ruin. Anna’s mother Francie is close to death in a Hobart hospital, and her three children face difficult decisions. Tommy – a failed artist, part-time crayfishing deckie, and as the only one who has stayed local in Tasmania, Francie’s caregiver for many years – thinks it best to let her slip away. Terzo, a successful businessman, seems to see death as somehow beneath the family, and will happily throw his money and contacts at the problem. Anna falls somewhere between these two positions. When the recurring dilemma becomes too much, she is in the habit of retreating into her architectural work, or her phone. But the latter only offers her a harrowing slideshow of our doomed planet – footage of the Australian wilds aflame, photos of charred koalas and cattle, reports of yet another species driven to extinction, and more bad news from elsewhere.

Those ‘doomscroll’ passages are deliberately unflinching. Away from the glow of Anna’s smartphone, the hospital scenes are just as hard to bear. Like Anna, we are vexed by the medical language loaded with euphemisms, and traumatised by the sight of a life so reduced that it’s barely there. Seeing her mother hooked up to a ‘vermicelli of tubes’, Anna compares her to ‘a carapace of something long ago caught and killed in a spider’s web’. So many other images are haunting and horribly accurate to an experience so many will know.

Into this complex mix, Flanagan boldly chucks a massive helping of magic realism: early on, we learn that Anna’s body parts have started vanishing – first of all her ring finger, her left hand blurring into nothing at the knuckle like a shoddy bit of Photoshop. This theme is developed in that certain characters can notice Anna’s missing parts, while most seem oblivious. The parallel with our planet’s miraculous nature being erased every single day, yet mostly ignored, is powerful.

Realism is the least effective way of describing reality. It was a way of trying to find a story that would speak to this strange way in which the more we’re confronted with horror, the more we turn away from it and refuse to acknowledge it.

Richard Flanagan on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book

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