True to form, Flanagan followed this up two years later with something entirely different again: a novel set in the nineteenth century. Wanting comprises twin narratives, told in alternate chapters 12 years apart, that are based on real-life characters: Sir John Franklin, who was governor of Tasmania between 1836 and 1843, but is better known for his exploration of North America and the Arctic, including his ill-fated expedition to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage; Charles Dickens, the English novelist, who was briefly obsessed with Arctic exploration and staged a play about it; and a young aboriginal girl, Mathinna, who was ‘adopted’ by the Franklins as an experiment to prove that the ‘savage’ could be 'tamed' and ‘civilised’.
But while the book is based on true events, it is not focused on history, but on the all-consuming power of desire and what happens when it is denied. It’s a haunting, heart-breaking read that depicts the frailty of human beings, a subject that was to be amplified in Flanagan’s next novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, published five years later.
That much-lauded book rightly established Richard Flanagan’s place in international literary circles and now Australia gets to share him – and his extraordinary, wise and humane novels – with the rest of the world.
Kim Forrester is a production journalist who has been blogging about books for more than a decade on her site Reading Matters. She also blogs for Waterstones and can be found, often talking about books, on Twitter @kimbofo.