Book review: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

In The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, 86 year old Francie is admitted to a Hobart hospital with a brain bleed and her three adult children assemble at her bedside. As in many families the children are worlds apart. Anna is a distracted famous architect, Terzo is a wealth manger full of certainty, and kind Tommy is a failed artist and the the family underdog.

the measure of us is not what we say or think, but what we are when we are tested by suffering.

There are decisions to be made about Francie’s treatment and the three siblings cannot agree. Tommy wants to let her go, Terzo is defiant, and Anna sides with her more ambitious brother. So begins a heart wrenching and disturbing tale of ever more extreme interventions to try and keep a dying woman alive.

The lie was one they – children, doctors, nurses – all encouraged. The lie was that postponing death was life. That wicked lie had now imprisoned Francie in a solitude more absolute and perfect and terrifying than any prison cell.

In the outside world Australia is experiencing bushfires, bleaching reefs and the demise of bees. Events Anna follows with macabre fascination on social media.

For so long they had been searching, liking, friending and commenting, emojiing and cancelling, unfriending and swiping and scrolling again, thinking they were no more than writing and rewriting their own worlds, while, all the time—sensation by sensation, emotion by emotion, thought by thought, fear on fear, untruth on untruth, feeling by feeling—they were themselves being slowly rewritten into a wholly new kind of human being. How could they have known that they were being erased from the beginning?

As Francie declines despite her children’s insistent attempts to keep her living, Anna is experiencing vanishings of her own – possessions and body parts mysteriously disappear – money, computers, fingers, breasts, a nose – and no one seems to notice.

Between her little finger and her middle finger, where her ring finger had once connected to her hand, there was now a diffuse light, a blurring of the knuckle joint, the effect not unlike the photoshopping of problematic faces, hips, thighs, wrinkles and sundry deformities, with some truth or other blurred out of the picture.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan is a metaphor for climate extinction and the anguish of ecological collapse. Both extraordinarily beautiful, emotive, disturbing and brutal. The story is brimming with magical realism and realism. It is both a family drama about dealing with aging parents and a cry of warning about what humanity will lose if we keep focussing on the wrong things as indicators of success.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s