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Climate Change Literature: A review of Richard Flanagan’s “The Living Sea of Waking Dreams”

Can we just take a moment to appreciate this cover… Picture of a hardcover book with bright green bird feathers on the cover.

I read Richard Flanagan’s novel back in December 2020. It was a difficult time in my life as there was a lot going on in my family with health issues. It was a book that I read and enjoyed, but also needed time to process and reflect on before I could write something for my blog. That is why the review is coming two months later.

Even though Flanagan is a famous Australian author and well-known for his award-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I have not actually read any of his books before this one. With that in mind, it is hard to know how this deeply moving and sometimes very strange novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, compares to his other works.

Like many books that are being published of late, Flanagan’s novel speaks to the fear and worry of climate change and how it is affecting our flora and fauna. In Australia, as bush fires ripped through our country before the pandemic hit, it is hard not to be worried about how climate change is impacting our land. Flanagan explores a lot of the fears, indifference, and sometimes immobility we experience in the face of such overwhelming issues like climate change.

The story centres on Anna, and her relationship with her dying mother and her two brothers. In many ways, what happens in Anna’s family is also mirrored by what is happening in the world around her. Her mother is old and wants to die, yet Anna’s brother, Terzo, cannot let her go. So he uses all of his money and power to keep his mother alive, even against the medical advice from doctors. Anna and Terzo bully their brother Tommy, who suggests that their mother wants to die and that they should let her do so peacefully. It seems that it is easier to blame their brother, than blame and face death.

Bush sunset

While the family is busy trying to preserve their dying mother, the world around them is dying and even vanishing. Birds are going extinct, fires are ripping through the land and destroying everything. It is as though Flanagan wants to ask us: what should we be really trying to preserve here? And to that I would answer, Maybe we have gotten it all wrong. It is back-to-front.

When Anna is looking through social media while she waits at the hospital or at the airport, she seems to be doing something we have all become accustom to in one way or another – doomscrolling, which is defined as consuming a lot of negative news and information (usually through social media) in large quantities. At the peak of the bush fires in 2019/2020 and the peak of the pandemic last year in Victoria, I also found myself being overwhelmed by negative news and feeling so utterly beset with worry and grief for what I was seeing. And then, also feeling unable to do anything about it.

The nature we should be preserving.

There is an element of Flanagan’s novel that I didn’t enjoy, and that was the magic realism elements that he incorporated throughout the novel. The vanishing body parts, a hard-to-miss metaphor relating to the vanishing of relationships, land, flora, and fauna, seemed a bit forced to me. When I felt drawn into the novel and the family dynamics contrasted with the natural world, the vanishing scenes and descriptions would give me a literary whiplash, where I found myself being brought out of the novel and the story.

In saying all of that, I did enjoy this strange and sad novel by Flanagan. I hope that these kinds of novels bring awareness and start discussions about climate change in a positive and productive way. That these fictions do not become our reality. As always, share the reading love.

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