REVIEWED BY AMBER SPALDING
Richard Flanagan (Penguin Random House: 2020)
Set against the backdrop of ecological destruction, Richard Flanagan’s novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, captures the uneasy dichotomy between life and death. Australia is on the cusp of collapse, the ‘mountains behind the city are burning’, ancient forests are disappearing, and lightning storms threaten future civilizations.
What makes Flanagan’s novel unlike any other eco-dystopia of its time is that the onrushing apocalypse is normalised. Anthropogenic changes are not seen as monstrous or remorseful, rather there is a ‘perverse comfort’ in the ruins.
For the protagonist, Anna, social media – the act of scrolling particularly, is an escape from the sterility of hospital waiting rooms, where Francie, her mother, lies critically ill. Going against medical advice, Anna, and her brothers, Terzo and Tommy, pay for both expensive and tiresome treatments to keep their mother alive. But as her condition deteriorates, these interventions become increasingly futile and painful, her skin ‘tearing’ with fragility. She begs her children to ‘let me go’, but none of them listen.
Outside of medical bureaucracy, Anna is dealing with her own problems. She worries that her focus on her career has made her a bad mother to her son, Gus – a gamer and drug addict, confined to his bedroom. Not to mention the vanishing body parts. First her finger – which seems to disappear without recognition, then her knee, then her breast. More and more of her vanishes, and no one seems to notice. Flanagan’s ambiguity here is one that should be praised. Rather than dramatising the loss, he describes it as ‘a blurring of the knuckle joint’, as if ‘blurred out of the picture’. It seems that society has become numb to trauma. Anna in particular, is surprised at ‘how little she felt about feeling so little’. Her fast-paced, and sometimes, disillusioned narrative, reflects the carelessness of life. Only when she visits the endangered, orange-bellied parrots does everything change for her.
The climate crisis acts as a smokescreen for what the novel is really about. How this fragmented family confronts the reality of approaching death. Anna’s world is falling apart and all she can do is cave into the numbness of social media, scrolling on Instagram, ‘so much joy! Instagram, blessed Novocaine of the soul!’