Richard Flanagan has described his eighth novel – a magical realist tale of ecological anguish – as “a rising scream”. The Living Sea of Waking Dreams combines the moral righteousness of a fable, the wounded grief of a eulogy, and the fury of someone who still reads the news. And smouldering underneath it all is the red memory of last summer’s reign of fire.
When 87-year-old Francie is admitted to a Hobart hospital with a brain bleed, her children assemble at her bedside: there’s rockstar architect Anna, trawling Instagram while the doctors prognosticate; unyielding Terzo, a wealth manager with an iron-clad sense of certainty; and failed artist Tommy, the sibling punching bag (“that most bourgeois of embarrassments: the lower class relative”). Death is waiting in the wings, and there are decisions to be made.
Tommy is ready to let Francie slip away, but to Terzo, it smacks of spineless defeatism. Tommy’s kindness has always irked Anna, proof somehow of her own deficiencies. She sides with Terzo, and their mother is whisked into surgery. For Francie, here begins a cruel half-life of “tubes and torment” – elaborate, high-risk interventions and ratcheting misery. “She had not understood her children’s resolve that she should live. If she had, she might have feared it more than death itself.”
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams follows Anna as she battles her mother’s decline, insisting on last-ditch therapies in the way only those with power and money can. Are her actions a ferocious form of love, sublimated guilt, or a fearful evasion of love’s most intimate and painful obligations? Anna does not know. What she does know is there is an intoxicating calm – a kind of existential grace – to be found at her mother’s bedside.
Outside the air-con cool of the hospital, Australia is burning. The reef is bleaching and the bees are dying and the sky is black with pyro-cumulus terror. “It was like living with a chronically sick smoker,” Flanagan writes, “except the smoker was the world and everyone was trapped in its fouled and collapsing lungs.” It’s a desolation so immense that it’s possible for Anna to lose her own pain inside it. Doom-scrolling on social media, she finds “perverse comfort” in watching the sixth extinction wreak its obliterative carnage – a kind of grim companionship.
A vanishing world; a vanishing mother. At home in Sydney, Anna’s possessions are vanishing, too – hocked, she thinks, by her sullen, cash-strapped son. When she realises that one of her own fingers has disappeared – a painless victim to some mystical “silent leprosy” – Anna is oddly unflustered. “The only surprise to her was how little she felt about feeling so little.” She is a middle-aged woman, after all, and inured to social invisibility. But then another body part follows, and another.
Australian readers raised on Mem Fox will catch a sinister echo of Possum Magic here – that childhood tale of a fading daughter. Flanagan’s extinction metaphor is not subtle, but the fiction of the Anthropocene can not afford to be gentle; summer is coming. “Summer was frightening. Smoke was frightening. Having children was frightening ... Today was frightening. Tomorrow was terrifying, if we made it that far.”
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams at its best when it balances its vehemence with its beauty, when it leaves space for the reader to wander and wonder – eucalypt leaves swinging down like “lazing scimitars”; a moth thrumming its “Persian rug” wings.
Flanagan’s novel may be brutal, but unlike Terzo and Anna – so ferociously determined “to save their mother from her own wishes” – it is not wilfully cruel. Francie’s decline is rendered as a slow motion horror, but she is never the monster. Dying can be an undignified business, but it is apathy that the Booker prize-winning author finds grotesque. Mollified by social media (“blessed Novocaine of the soul”) and peak TV (“bedtime fairy-tales for adults”), his disappearing populace resign themselves to fading away. For confronting the lost noses, fingers, breasts and eyes would mean finding a way to speak to each other about everything else that is missing.
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams understands the textures of silence: what is unsaid, unsayable and unheard. Flanagan depicts a world drowning in opinion, jargon, small-talk and noise: “It was as though everyone was using words to avoid using words for what words were used for”. There’s stammering Tommy, whose grief has trapped his words in his throat; Francie who post-stroke utterances are “adrift and broken”, filling notebooks with undecipherable symbols; and lonely Anna, who wonders if the act of naming feelings destroys them.
“Is translating experience into words any achievement at all?” Flanagan asks. “Or is it just the cause of all our unhappiness?”
Writers the world over are grappling with a version of this question: in the face of so much devastation, so much terror, what can fiction possibly achieve? The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is his emphatic, wrenching answer.
• The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan is out now in Australia through Penguin Random House. It is released in the UK in January 2021