Book Review: ‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams,’ by Richard Flanagan

Many Australians are still not sure how to feel about that. The gap in lifestyle and outlook between Francie and Tommy on one side and Anna and Terzo on another can be found in countless families and suburbs, with impacts on the country and the national psyche that are rarely examined. Flanagan does well here to at least try, beginning with the losses and anxieties that accompany greater comfort.

The land and sea, in his telling, are the first and most visible victims.

Tommy, the conscience of the family, can hardly stand the ruin of Tasmania, an island at the bottom of the earth, with “beaches covered in crap, wild birds vomiting supermarket shopping bags, a world disappearing.” Some of Flanagan’s descriptions carry a similarly bitter tone. On her phone, Anna slides right on past platypuses and lyre birds in danger of extinction and a burned koala screaming on Facebook. But there is sadness astride the outrage, like ash after a blaze.

“The Living Sea of Waking Dreams” is especially strong when its characters — and the reader — actually linger to lament what’s gone or going: Christmas beetles with “gaudy metallic shells”; emperor gum moths, with their “powdery Persian rug wings”; or orange-bellied parrots, as small as “flying teacups.”

The vanishing animals carry more emotional weight than the strange loss of Anna’s body parts, or the money that her video-gaming son may be stealing. The natural world is Flanagan’s muse, and his heartbreak at its demise never fades, in part because it’s not the only thing to suffer when people become “remarkably unobservant.” Also endangered are the values that keep families together, that keep societies together.

Francie bears the brunt of that failure to pay attention. Anna and Terzo, high on their own urbane self-regard, simply refuse to let her go, insisting on every treatment possible regardless of medical advice or cruelty. They love their mother. But they cannot quite make sense of someone who had less and expected less: “Francie had come of age in a world where the self — its problems, its needs, its desires and its vanities — was not accorded the primacy of time or the dignity of reflection for people of her lowly class.”

So Francie endures, and the gap between her children widens. Anna insists her mother did not live a good life because she was not free to chase her dreams. Tommy “felt Francie found meaning in what she had.” He saw her life “as a triumph of her will against the odds: a woman who never allowed her circumstances to reduce her.”

If there is hope in “The Living Sea of Waking Dreams” — and in interviews, Flanagan has said there is — it may be found in that simple admonition. Look extinction in the face and find meaning in what we have left. Human failure cannot be solved when we’re scrolling, lost in our dreams, or when the air is tobacco brown. What we see, stream and share will never matter as much as the lives and landscapes we can observe, contemplate and touch.

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