Journalist Kim Forrester looks back at Richard Flanagan, considered ‘Australia’s best kept secret’ until he won the Man Booker Prize in 2014
Once upon a time, the writer, Richard Flanagan, was Australia’s best-kept secret. But he came to worldwide attention when his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. This book, which tells the story of an Australian doctor in a Japanese POW camp during the construction of the Death Railway in Burma, is based on his father’s own experiences and took 12 years to write. It is the culmination of a rich and varied writing career that includes five novels (so far), each of which is vastly different in style, tone and subject matter.
His work is characterised by lush, detailed prose (with a penchant for long sentences), but he achieves this without compromising narrative pace, making his novels wholly absorbing reads. Most deal with uncomfortable realities – violence, racism, death and history’s dark secrets. Yet his stories, all tempered by a deep humanity, brim with hope and optimism; they rarely feel oppressive despite the heavy subject matter.
All but one share a common setting: the island state of Tasmania, which Flanagan calls home. Tucked away at the bottom of the world, Van Diemen’s Land (as it used to be known) was once the British Empire’s most brutal and desolate penal colony. Its dark past includes the near eradication of all Aborigines on the island. More recently, it has been subject to some of Australia’s most controversial environmental battles involving logging and hydroelectric power, yet it remains one of the most beautiful and pristine wild places on the planet: a wilderness destination in its own right.
his stories, all tempered by a deep humanity, brim with hope and optimism; they rarely feel oppressive despite the heavy subject matter.
It is that wilderness, and the modern day tourism industry set up around it, that features in Flanagan’s first novel, Death of a River Guide, which was published in 1994. It is a startling and audacious debut inspired by his own near-death experience when he almost drowned on the River Franklin, aged 21. It tells the story of a river guide, Aljaz Cosini – half Tasmanian, half Slovenian – who is drowning midway through an expedition he is leading. As Aljaz struggles to wriggle free from the rock that has ensnared him under the white water, scenes from his life – good, bad and ugly – come rushing back to him like fragments of a dream. This ambitious first novel, with just a touch of magic realism about it, features multiple storylines about history, fate, identity and nature. It is a truly engrossing read.
Three years later his second novel was published. It was inspired by a photograph Flanagan had seen of a snow-covered labourers’ camp in the Tasmanian highlands, where a massive hydroelectric dam was being built. It was from the 1950s, a time when hundreds of European immigrants, scarred by the Second World War, sought new lives in far-flung destinations. He used that camp as a setting for The Sound of One Hand Clapping and had a Slovenian couple, Bojan and Maria, living there with their three-year-old daughter, Sonja. One stormy evening Maria packs her bags and walks out. She is never seen alive again.
The book charts the emotional fallout between father and daughter over the next 35 years, touching on a wide range of issues including abandonment, poverty, alcoholism, racism, domestic violence and wartime atrocities, all set within the social and historical context of Australia’s immigrant past. It is a deeply moving, disturbing and powerful novel, and it became a bestseller in Australia, freeing up Flanagan to be slightly more experimental with his next offering.
Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish, published in 2001, is the fictionalised account of the life of a convicted forger, William Buelow Gould, who was sentenced to hard labour on the penal colony of Sarah Island, off the coast of Van Diemen’s Land, in the 1820s. Because of his artistic talents, he was ordered to paint a book of fish (now held by the State Library of Tasmania). In Flanagan’s novel, which is written in a tragicomic tone, Gould is an audacious, unreliable character, and the story he tells is one of violence, mayhem and madness. The structure and style of the book are wildly inventive – the chapter titles, for instance, are the names of fish, and the grammar and syntax is deliberately off kilter throughout. But the story, which moves backwards and forwards (and possibly sideways) in time is a compelling and hilarious one. It earned Flanagan the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2002.
His fourth novel, and the only one not set in Tasmania, was like nothing he’d ever written before. Disturbed by the erosion of civil liberties in Australia following 9/11 and the subsequent media manipulation and hysteria surrounding terrorism, Flanagan tapped into the mood of the time by penning a contemporary novel of the finest order. Published in 2006 and set in Sydney, The Unknown Terrorist is about a five-day witch-hunt for a lap dancer called Doll, who has gone on the run, having been accused of helping to plot a terrorist attack. She’s entirely innocent, but the media portray her as public enemy number one. What results is a fast-paced thriller, brimming with panic and paranoia. But it’s also a very knowing novel, carefully constructed to expose modern-day media puppetry and the politics of fear-mongering.
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.