History left wanting under bulk of details

By David Hill

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Has any other novel ever begun from such a marginal experience? (Answer: yes, of course.) But it's worth mentioning that Richard Flanagan's sweeping, sometimes swollen, narrative started a quarter of a century ago, when he saw how an early picture of an Aboriginal girl had been trimmed so viewers wouldn't be offended by the sight of her bare feet.

The Australian writer's fifth fiction doesn't lack ambition. He manages to include Charles Dickens, two shiploads of lost polar explorers, Wilkie Collins and a fair number of the mid-19th century's colonial officials. Charles Darwin also has a part. It's a narrative with a motif of desire and the disasters this can bring.

In 1839, governor-explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife visit a Flinders Island settlement where those Tasmanian Aboriginals who survived the huntings and massacres have been moved. They're intrigued by the little daughter of a chief, and decide to bring her up as a white woman, "an experiment of the soul worth making, both for science and for God".

Years later, back in Europe, with this failed foray into human governance behind her, Lady Franklin wants the help of Dickens to initiate a rescue expedition for her husband, lost with his two ships in the Arctic as he searches for the Northwest Passage. Meanwhile, Dickens himself is yearning to leave his wife for the young actress Ellen Ternan. Hardly anyone emerges well from these displays of desire. Franklin is a pompous bumbler; his wife is a bullying bigot; Dickens is a flashy, devious, racist.

They have their moments of regret and remorse, but they all end as physical, emotional or matrimonial wreckage. Flanagan writes fiercely at his best, floridly at his less-best. He offers some excellent cameos: "Outside of an anatomist's bottle, he was the queerest thing Forster had ever seen." He pursues metaphors with varying results. "Had not his marriage been a Northwest Passage, mythical, unknowable, undiscoverable, an iced-up channel to love";

"Destiny's darker edges were dancing the sailor's hornpipe." Gosh. Also ouch. And he wears his research flamboyantly. The detail of the historical settings means that you learn a lot of ... details. He builds gaudy scenes full of flickering lights, eyes and passions.

See a shipboard ball full of beast masks; Ellen Ternan producing a concealed starling (sic) at a play rehearsal; a typhoid-ravaged Victorian orphanage. There's homicide, hubris and horror, plus cannibalism, copulation and cake. Your mouth may be open while you read, but it won't have opened to yawn.

Wanting
By Richard Flanagan (Knopf $39.99)

* David Hill is a Taranaki writer.

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