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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Richard Flanagan

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To purchase Wanting

Title: Wanting
Author: Richard Flanagan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 256 pages
Availability: Wanting - US
Wanting - UK
Wanting - Canada
Désirer - France
Begehren - Deutschland
Solo per desiderio - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine, dark novel of human longing and personal isolation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 8/11/2008 Don Anderson
Boston Globe D 16/8/2009 Alexander Theroux
The Guardian . 25/9/2009 Giles Foden
The LA Times A 10/5/2009 Jon Fasman
The NY Times . 22/5/2009 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 24/6/2009 William Boyd
The New Yorker . 1/6/2009 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 4/6/2009 Kevin Canfield
Time . 1/6/2009 Lev Grossman
The Washington Post . 27/5/2009 Ron Charles

  Review Consensus:

  Not in the same class as Gould's Book of Fish, but a fine piece of work

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel boasts many symmetries and ironies, which are the stuff of poetry rather than history. Franklin seems often an absence, a negative space. Dickens, looking at his reflection in a mirror, saw "a face that could have been any man and no man, somebody who in his relentless mimicry of everybody had become nobody". Which sounds remarkably like Jorge Luis Borges on Shakespeare. Is there any higher compliment ?" - Don Anderson, The Australian

  • "We are hit with implications of venality, lust, and lost virginity as if with a shovel. It is a Victorian soap opera, and Flanagan rather lamely resorts to the locutions of that genre. (...) But my objection is not the theme. This is a book of stick figures, the characters cobbled from other peopleís research. (...) Worse, the story is poorly told, pieced out in abrupt and broken segments that seem more like interruptions." - Alexander Theroux, Boston Globe

  • "What Flanagan has done, and it does seem to be the current trend in the post-colonial novel, is show how the colonised and the home territories are inextricably linked, however far apart they might seem at first glance. (...) In less capable hands the different strands of this artfully constructed novel could have made for bad neighbours, but here the affinity is made plain." - Giles Foden, The Guardian

  • "In Wanting, Richard Flanagan has written an exquisite, profoundly moving, intricately structured meditation about the desire for human connection in its many forms -- that commingling of compassion, curiosity, care, lust, attraction, intrigue, selfishness and selflessness that is clumsily grouped under that most perilous of all abstract nouns: love." - Jon Fasman, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Though Wanting is a flawed and much slighter work than Fish -- an uneven chamber piece, compared with a glorious, full-blown symphony -- it still recounts a haunting and powerful story. (...) The one serious problem with Wanting is Mr. Flanaganís decision to play fast and loose with the facts in reimagining Sir Johnís life." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "So brief a summary does little justice to the complexities and nuances of this dense and fascinating novel. In tracing the tangents where these contrasting and various lives intersect and influence one another; in analyzing how a random encounter, placed under the microscope, can reveal a multitude of unexpected links and adjacencies, Flanagan explores both human history and human nature. (...) Wanting is, in its way, as interesting a fictional exercise as Flanaganís celebrated and unclassifiable third novel, Gouldís Book of Fish (2001). Flanagan takes a literary form -- in Gouldís, metafiction and unreliable narration; in Wanting, Victorian-style omniscience -- and bends it forcefully to the essential themes that his fiction subsists on" - William Boyd, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The narrative scope is ambitious" - The New Yorker

  • "This is a captivating tale of cruelty and disappointment, but Wanting periodically flashes forward to another equally engaging story in England, a jungle of a different kind, brought to life with the same lurid and startling detail." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Wanting weaves together several different storylines, and moves back and forth in time in the nineteenth century. It is based on several historical incidents, including the lost Arctic expedition of explorer Sir John Franklin, Franklin's time as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), Mathinna, the aboriginal girl the Franklin's (temporarily) adopted, Charles Dickens' defense of Franklin when he was accused of having resorted to cannibalism on his ill-fated expedition, and the production of The Frozen Deep, a play Dickens wrote with Wilkie Collins, which was also how he met Ellen Ternan, for whom he would leave his wife.
       Childish innocence and the ideal of family are central to the story, but they remain out of reach. The Franklins themselves remained childless, while Dickens' was gravely affected by the death of his young daughter -- but, as Flanagan, notes:

Few had gambled so boldly and profited so handsomely as Lady Jane, the exemplary devoted wife, or Dickens, the very bard of family. But celebrating family was one thing. Practising it, Dickens had discovered, was something else again.
       Mathinna is the awful example of all of this. The orphaned aboriginal child strikes the fancy of Lady Jane Franklin, and the couple take her in in a grand experiment to civilize the little savage. Since one of Lady Jane's first observations about the little one is: "you almost wish to hold the little wild beast and pet her" it comes as no surprise that the experiment is doomed to failure. Mathinna can't be turned into the child-substitute Lady Jane longs for, and while John Franklin takes to her free-spirited childishness for a while he is ultimately overcome by different desires, and commits an unspeakable violation of innocence.
       Mathinna is eventually shoved off into an orphanage; Lady Jane almost comes to rescue her, but can't bring herself to do it. From there, Mathinna's descent is unstoppable -- yet another example to all that the savages are unimprovable.
       Wanting is full of the misguided, beginning with a preacher appointed 'Protector' of the aboriginal settlement where Mathinna is born:
His dreams were full of their dances and songs, the beauty of their villages, the sound of their rivers, the memory of their tendernesses, yet they still kept dying and nothing he did altered it. They kept dying and dying, and he -- who had lived in their old world, who continued to work to make this new world perfect in its civilisation, its Christianity, its Englishness -- he was their Protector, but still they kept dying.
       Of course, it is the nonsense of 'civilization', from English clothes (and shoes !) to religious devotion, being imposed on them that is killing them -- with Mathinna just the most extreme example.
       The individuals, too -- these supposedly civilized folk -- are also completely at sea, especially in what should be their most intimate relationships. John Franklin realizes far too late, for example:
He understood little of people generally and had, in society, tended to leave them to his wife, who assured him she did. In this, too, he could now see he was mistaken. She simply lacked his humility.
       And it takes Dickens' wife long until she faces the truth about her husband -- and her role:
     She realised she had never understood him. He was unstoppable, undeniable, he bent the world to his schemes and dreams as surely as he did his characters. And she knew that her part, henceforth, would be the fat and hopeless housekeeper, the hysteric, the invalid, the harridan and the virago.
       Flanagan turns his tale nicely, and writes most of it very well, but there is also an irritating simple-mindedness to it. Annoyingly, the civilized folk all seem unbelievably obtuse, so certain that their way is the right way; it's hard to credit that even in those days people weren't more racked by doubts -- especially given the evidence at hand.
       Still, Wanting is a well-told tale, based on fascinating material which is fairly well used.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 July 2009

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Wanting: Reviews: Richard Flanagan: Other books by Richard Flanagan under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian author Richard Flanagan was born in 1961 and has won numerous literary prizes for his first three novels.

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