‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams,’ by Richard Flanagan: An Excerpt

She would fly over it, not at height, her flying was not so assured, but a metre or two off the ground, flying at a joyful, somewhat terrifying velocity as she glided here and there, her turning controlled by the slightest lean of her shoulders or minutest movement of an outstretched leg in the way she had known in her dreams as a child, a matter of simultaneous stillness and movement; of, in other words, the most perfect balance, all held in control by absolute concentration, an intense focusing on the subtlest of the body’s actions, one false movement and the magic ends in the most cataclysmic fall.

But if Anna just believed in the powers of flight a little longer, very soon she would be where she would need to be, which is to say a place of quiet and green, of reverie, perhaps transcendence—


But first we need to get some details straight, Terzo was saying, and what their younger brother Terzo said normally more or less prevailed as the family view, not Anna’s daydreams or Tommy’s thoughts but Terzo’s will, uttered with his inescapable certainty that Anna now heard fill the ward behind her, so sweetly modulated, robbed of anything stray or unnecessary to its purpose, monotonal as a closing door.

She was suddenly tumbling and falling, she had lost all her powers, and when she turned around from the window to the treacly sound of her brother’s voice, it was to hear Terzo speaking to Tommy as if he too were one more of his gullible clients. In the elegance of his Italian suit, the studied casualness of his tieless shirt, with his glittering eyes set in a face too weak for such intensity, Terzo stood in contrast to Tommy with his baggy work jeans, his torn polar fleece top, what Anna always thought of as his butcher’s face, somehow fleshy and fallen. She went to raise her hand in greeting to her brothers but dropped it almost as soon as she had lifted it, so that Terzo and Tommy might not notice what Francie had.


The summer was endless in Tasmania that year. None of the normal rules held. There were no spring rains no summer rains. Each day was hot or hotter than the last. For all that though, it was not a bright or happy summer. Out in the island’s wildlands there were dry lightning storms that lasted days, thousands upon thousands of lightning strikes igniting small fires everywhere. The rainforests, once wet mystical worlds, were now dry struggling woodlands, and the fires took, and the fires grew; soon, the fires were the only news; they came closer or they drifted away, they advanced or they halted; the point was that wherever they were they continued to inexorably grow and with them the infernal, oppressive smoke, the cinder storms, the reign of ash, and the island’s capital filled with the displaced listlessly waiting for the fires to end so that they might return to their homes and their lives.

And yet life itself seemed on hold.

There was a great waiting though for what no one knew. There was an edge and a tension as week after week the fires slowly reduced the ancient forests, the exquisite heathlands and alpine gardens of the island’s west and highlands into the ash that Anna, when home seeing her mother, woke each morning to find speckling her Airbnb bed sheet, the fires that rained on the island’s old city tiny carbonised fragments of ancient fern and myrtle leaf, perfect negatives that on her touching vanished into a sooty smear, and all that remained of the thousand-year-old King Billy pines and ancient grass trees, the pencil pine groves, the stands of pandani and richea, the great regnans along with the button grass plains and the tiny rare mountain orchids, all that was left of so many sacred worlds was Anna’s soot-stained bed sheet.

The smoke had turned the air a tobacco brown, the blinding brilliance of the island’s blue skies glimpsed only when the winds blew a small hole in the pall that sat over much of the island. The smoke never seemed to lift and on the worst days reduced everyone’s horizon to a few hundred yards and enclosed the world in a way that felt claustrophobic. The sun stumbled into each day a guilty party, a violent red ball, indistinct in outline, shuddering through the haze as if hungover, while in the ochry light smoke smothered every street and the smoke filled every room, the smoke sullied every drink and every meal; the acrid, tarry, sulphurous smoke that burnt the back of every throat and filled every mouth and nose blocking out the warm gentle smells of summer. It was like living with a chronically sick smoker except the smoker was the world and everyone was trapped in its fouled and collapsing lungs.

[ Return to the review of “The Living Sea of Waking Dreams.” ]

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