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Review: Wanting by Richard Flanagan

wanting richard flanagan Review: Wanting by Richard Flanagan

It is 1839, a year in which the lives of two notable Englishmen slowly begin to overlap and intertwine, despite being a distance of several continents apart. Sir John Franklin, explorer and Governor of the then Van Diemens Land, adopts with his wife a young Indigenous girl called Mathinna in an effort to mould her in the ways of the middle-class English. But vibrant, lucid Mathinna fails to thrive under the stern, scientific hand of her adoptive parents, and soon becomes utterly lost to them, frustrating their soi-disant altruistic efforts at social conditioning. The thread of the second key individual in the narrative, although present in 1839, only begins to fully assert itself some years later: Lady Franklin, distraught at a manner of accusations levelled at her now missing explorer husband, approaches author Charles Dickens with a request that he help clear her husbands name. Dickens, slipping slowly into madness after the death of his daughter, takes up the topic with a gusto that borders on obsession, and gradually becomes consumed by the story and the various exigencies to which it leadsthe most important of which, to Dickens, is a young woman who begins slowly to take over his every thought.

My thoughts

Given its rather unsubtle title, its not difficult to pick up the major themes running through Wanting: through the various point of view characters who flight in and out of this novel, Flanagan addresses the binary of desire and control, explicating the universality of these concepts and the influence they have over those from different classes, societies, and cultures. The notorious frigidity of middle- and upper-class British culture is not only addressed, but is veritably (albeit tragically) parodied, with near enough to every scene containing a painful internal battle between the control and propriety demanded by social norms, and the Hyde-ian desire to act out against these. Lady Franklins adoption of Mathinna, for example, is carefully orchestrated under the banner of a scientific experimentthe Franklins deign to determine whether Mathinna can be brought up to pass appropriately in British societybut is underpinned by Lady Franklins desire to have a child of her own. These conflicting desires, of course, wreak havoc upon Mathinna herself, who is subjected to a confused and prolonged induction into this world. Similar notions are seen in Dickenss desire to take up with his new lover, who represents a life anew, and in his all-consuming obsession with Lady Franklins story, something which is vastly at odds with his usual equating of work with money. Indeed, Dickenss fervour is such that he begins to find his every waking hour devoted to the story such that he begins to become it, and he spends a good part of his day wandering the streets of London in search of elucidation. This wandering brings to mind Poes chilling The Man of the Crowd, highlighting Dickens'obsessive desire and the fruitlessness of his efforts.

Wanting also brings to mind Patrick Whites A Fringe of Leaves, with its parallel narratives, use of sybils and precognition, and its terse teasing out of societal norms. Like A Fringe of Leaves, Wanting involves a good deal of moral ambiguity, with characters deceiving themselves about the felicity and the value of their actions. The most obvious of these, of course, is the case of Mathinna: the Franklins tell themselves that their efforts with Mathinna are a noble experiment that will further understanding of Indigenous people, and pride themselves on their ability to overcome the challenges they face as a result. However, there is an almost chilling ambiguity here: the Franklins efforts to inure Mathinna into white, middle-class society typically degenerate into emotional and physical abuse, until Mathinna is unable to withstand the onslaught. At this point, the Franklins begin to turn their awful self-deception in another direction, telling themselves that such an experiment could never have worked in the first place, with the final outcome being proof of this fact. This same self-deception is seen in the actions of the protector of the Tasmanian Indigenous people, George Robinson, who kills Mathinnas father and presents his head to the Franklins in the name of science. The whole book is heavy with the conflict between the uprightness of learned English society and the shameful wrongdoing committed in the name of furthering this society.

Indeed, this conflict is evident in its effect upon some of the main characters: Mathinna, again, being the most obvious example. Singled out by the Franklins for her joyful, light-hearted ways, she is carefully moulded to meet the demands of English middle-class life, but soon finds that she is unable to pass in either culture. Her desire to remain barefooted is a constant reminder of this: by casting off her shoes she refuses wholesale integration into the world of the Franklins, but similarly her capitulation to other aspects of Franklin-esque life mark her as an outsider in her own community. Mathinna loses her ability to speak to the land, but never becomes more than a curiosity in the world of the Franklins. Mathinna, then, exists at the fringes of both societies, lost and purposeless, with an identity that flits between her two worlds, but never truly straddles them. This conflict of identity is seen too in the character of Lady Jane, who is representative more widely of the English middle class, and whose desires see her torn in several ways, and whose need to act within societal norms see her subjugating certain essential desires to those that seem more appropriate, but which are just as, if not more, damaging than the first type. Similarly, Dickens struggles to maintain his identity as a father, a husband, and a writer, slowly losing himself as he does within an inappropriate passion for his work and the circumstances that surround it.

From the above, its no doubt clear that Wanting is a thematically fascinating novel, if a little brazen in the way that it, like a mugger in some London backstreet, delights in beating the reader over the head with its moral beliefs. The writing, too, is exquisite, with Flanagan delighting in his thoughtful, beauteous prose and allowing it to break free of editorial restrains in order to stampede across the page in a barrage of long and winding sentences and smoky metaphors. For me, however, the major shortcoming of Wanting is to do with its characters: other than some brief moments of sympathy or empathy, I found myself struggling to relate to them in any meaningful way. The characters remain little more than interesting historical figures, and never really feel like people. This is perhaps the result of Flanagans tug-of-war between denial and indulgence, with his painfully restrained, objective way of working with his characters no doubt a further effort to emphasise the results of the two. Still, this biographical, removed way of writing makes it difficult to truly connect with the book, which is a shame, because it is a strong work on many other levels. Perhaps my final gripe is the tenuous way in which the stories of the Franklins and Dickens are eventually linked. The author admits himself that the link between the two is slight, and one cant help but wonder whether subordinating historical accuracy in the name of narrative might have been a better approach.


Wanting is exquisite on many levels, and offers a fascinating thematic counterpoint that problematises colonial life and norms against the wider backdrop of 19th century social norms, with repression, desire, and indulgence, and the consequences of succumbing to, or failing to succumb to, these notions key to the unfolding of events in the book. In his critique of this society, Flanagan provides a narrative of contrasts, 'although perhaps rather too blatantly on occasion, and offers a good deal of food for thought in terms of the civilised vs uncivilised dichotomy. For me, though, Wanting feels a little cold and removed, with Flanagans almost pathologically detached approach to his characters resulting in some tough work on the part of the reader.

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Other books by Richard Flanagan:

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  1. I enjoyed Wanting as historical fiction and I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on it. I think I wasnt expecting quite as much from it and was fairly satisfied with the story. It made me want to read more Flanagan and Ive now acquired Goulds Book of Fish and The Sound of One Hand Clapping and look forward to them also. Thank you for reviewing it.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Sandra. I think coming in with certain preconceptions can definitely influence the overall reading experience, and perhaps thats what happened to me here. I do think it was exquisitely written, and found the narrative overall fascinating, but just not quite as engaging as Id hoped.

      Ive heard wonderful things about both Goulds Book of Fish and The Sound of One Hand Clapping and would love to eventually read them.

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