The true subject of “Wanting”

July 31, 2009

Wanting by Richard FlanaganRichard Flanagan creates an odd plotline in his new book Wanting.  

He jumps back and forth between two vaguely connected historical events and fails to guide the story with any kind of structural timeline.

First is the story of British explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane governing Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania . (Historically, that happened 1836-1843). While there, they try to raise a young savage girl, Mathinna, to become a civilized English woman. The experiment fails due to the inability of the Franklins to control Mathinna.  

When Sir John is asked to resign his governing post, they leave Van Diemen’s. Mathinna is left behind and descends into a deranged homeless girl. 

Jump to Charles Dickens’ Victorian London when he’s in between having completed Hard Times and beginning Little Dorrit. (Historically, that happened 1854 to 1855.) He learns from the widowed Lady Jane Franklin that an explorer discovered her husband’s Arctic expedition ships that disappeared years ago and all are dead.

There’s also evidence of cannibalism having taken place. 

The Frozen Deep by Wilkie CollinsDickens asks his friend and author Wilkie Collins to write a play based on Franklin’s tragic expedition, which Dickens produces and acts in. It’s called The Frozen Deep, and it consumes Dickens while his marriage to Catherine falls apart.

The narrative voice of Wanting is exceptional. Of the kind that sounds like the story is being read to us – lyric, thoughtful, dramatic. It is the strength that makes this novel work despite its erratic compilation. 

Such a huge difference it would make if Flanagan had added the calendar year to chapter headings, more defined historical descriptions to some of the characters, a map of Tasmania, or simply an historical timeline to ground us.

Something else: Flanagan writes in an Author’s Note that his story is a meditation on desire – “the cost of its denial, the centrality and force of its power in human affairs. That, and not history, is the true subject of Wanting.”

He weaves the theme with the desires of the Franklins, Mathinna and Dickens – especially Dickens, who lusts for an actress and writes in a notebook: “You can have whatever you want, only you discover there is always a price. The question is, can you pay?”

Despite Flanagan’s statement, the history generating the novel’s story is larger than the theme of desire. It’s what kept me reading, and it’s why I would recommend Wanting, but with caution: be prepared to read without a compass.

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