Don’t be fooled by the whimsical title of Booker prize winner Richard Flanagan’s latest novel The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. It’s a raging, visceral response to a world gone mad, penned in hopes of igniting a switch.

Spewed forth as mainland Australia was engulfed in flames over the summer of 2019–20 and following the wake of #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #hongkong and populist upswell, the book trembles with rage yet responds by suggesting (aye, here’s the rub) love; an outcome personified by the story’s aged protagonist, Francie.

Book Cover: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan (Knopf Australia)

Flanagan recently lost his own mother and this tenderness resonates in Francie. Yet while the two women share big hearts and stoic pragmatism, their deaths are in stark contrast. Flanagan’s mother died peacefully in hospital surrounded by loving family, while in the book, Francie’s three adult children refuse to allow her to pass gracefully, prolonging her suffering. Here Flanagan uses Francie to personify Mother Earth, who many refuse to acknowledge is on the brink of expiry.

Francie’s daughter, Anna, exemplifies the book’s central concern of a dying planet. In a graphic representation of what’s happening globally, Anna starts losing body parts. While evaporating anatomy may seem of fabula, Anna’s dying mother, Francie, is one of a few who bears witness to the reality and in doing so, makes Anna’s loss explicit.

Anna’s fingers are literally, disappearing.

Flanagan softens the absurdity by turning a reflective, ironic gaze upon the text’s far-stretched metaphors, providing characters that describe the bizarre happenings in mocking tones. ‘Animals turning into birds, plants … There was of course no metamorphoses.’ For better or worse, there is no Kafka escape. Just the farce of living in a world that no longer makes sense.

In accord, Anna suffers no pain with her corporeal losses. What does cause her distress, is straddling the divide between life and death. Busy-city-Anne with her busy-city-life can’t handle the difficulty of dwelling in this awkward space so she and older brother, Terzo, deal with the challenge as all good capitalists must. By throwing money at it.

Through Terzo, a financial trader, Flanagan examines the economics of climate change. He points to our ‘zero emissions strategy’—which upon close examination becomes more about accounting than action; putting the right numbers in the right boxes; offsets rather than reductions. Do you think, he asks, that the earth really cares about our spreadsheets? Flanagan condemns the wealthy for taking the easy road, ridiculing them with an exercise in doublethink, ‘a new equilibrium … a tolerable pattern … a new life in which they could continue their old.’

In a Dickensian twist, stammering third sibling, Tommy, is the book’s unlikely hero and one who speaks the truth. Where his elder siblings use money to avoid tough issues, Tommy instead provides love and support. Through this family dynamic, Flanagan explores how shame can lead to unspoken anger.

Flanagan uses tongue-tied heroes and wordplay for good reason. The game is up.

How, when those in power and privilege are forced to see their inadequacy, they react with antagonism, ‘Was the real insult that they might have lost control?’

Flanagan uses tongue-tied heroes and wordplay for good reason. The game is up. The fact is, our planet is dying, just like Francie. ‘All this language, all this terminal lack of clarity is both a pretence and truth, both a howl of arrogant defiance and admission of humility because everything was going to die—’.

Like Orwell, Flanagan explores how language is used as a form of control, how tyrants (past and present) blend truth and fake news, deliberately muddling and obfuscating to hide the facts.

Aerial view of Tamania shrouded in bushfire smoke

Tasmania burnt for months, shrouding the island in bushfire smoke. Photo credit: NASA Earth


Flanagan prods our conscience with streams-of-consciousness. Not the even-flows of a lackadaisical Mrs Dalloway, but expletive-ridden, irascible observations which eviscerate the politeness of considered language.

Inserting his prose with social media posts, he juxtaposes the vanity of endless swipes and hashtags with the extinction of animals.

She liked a meme she reposted she followed she no longer knew if the fires were already over even though they hadn’t really yet begun—’.

Grammar-free doomscrolling becomes a metonym for the whole — ironically, a fragmented world.

Raw, harsh descriptions sting like a slap. There’s nowhere to hide from an ‘almost unrecognisable face dropping as if deboned … aged a decade overnight.’

Elsewhere, sarcasm is downright funny, pitting menopause against dementia in pithy remarks that bite but are oh-so-true. Flanagan is clever here. While the subject is serious, it’s delivered with lashings of light-hearted banter.

Such sardonic humour is the stuff of grim Russian novels. The humour of pathos. Of despair.

The self-reflections are as dire as they are entertaining, providing much-needed levity. The long arc Flanagan stretches across extinctions ranges from the profound to the mundane, the scientific to the artistic, ‘But now it had vanished like the thylacine, the Walkman.’

Such sardonic humour is the stuff of grim Russian novels. The humour of pathos. Of despair. This makes sense, of course, given the topic.

At times, the dull ache of futility rises, yet this modern fable urges us to refuse surrender — its ending offering a faint whiff of hope. Yet for the main, it tolls a sustained warning note echoing Yeats’ first peal — Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

It’s the anguished cry of a world torn asunder. Once more, a world on the brink. With summer’s burning skies its constant refrain, the book intones: ignore these harbingers at your peril.

Flanagan shows us hurtling towards decline, not to destroy but spark hope: that this story might sound a wake-up call and spread the word like wildfire. Faster than the destructive fires that spawned it. Fast enough to jump ahead of the flames which threaten to engulf us.

Strong enough to halt them.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan (Knopf Australia). On sale now: $32.99.


Main photo by High Exposure/Flickr