Fiction — print. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009. Originally published 2008. 272 pgs. Library copy.
Flanagan’s novel is set in Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania) and intertwined two storylines set over twenty years apart – Sir John Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane, as they adopt an Aboriginal girl named Mathinna during Sir John’s tenure as governor of Van Diemen’s Land and, later, Charles Dickens as he helps refute (at the request of Lady Jane) a popular story that Sir John resorted to cannibalism once lost in the Arctic.
I picked up this novel for Australian Literature Month largely because of its portrayal of the Tasmanian Aborigines. The novel kicks off with a fantastic start on that front, describing how adoption of English clothing and English food left them sick and dying after losing a war between themselves and white settlers, which the later won. The adoption of Mathinna is largely seen as a social experiment – can the “uncivilized savage” be civilized?
But then Charles Dickens is interjected into the story. His relationship with his wife is on the rocks after the death of their daughter, Dora. In fact, his whole life on the rocks and he interjects his own feelings of being lost and lonely into the play he and Wilkie Collins write refuting the idea that Sir John is now a cannibal. (A little searching after finishing the novel informed me that Sir John Franklin was, in fact, a real and famous Arctic explorer. I had no idea.)
I think it was Flanagan’s attempt to blend these two stories into one that cause the whole thing the fall flat for me. Was it a fictionalized story about Charles Dickens attempting to explain the emptiness and wanting of his writings? Was it a fictionalized story about the injustices done to the Aborigines in the name of civilization? It certainly could not be both because it did not work as both. I could not gel the two stories together in mind; just about the time I would become comfortable with one I would be thrown into the other.
Australian Literature Month:
I read this book for Australian Literature Month, hosted by Kim of Reading Matters. The idea is simple: read Australian books in January and share in the love of Australia. I have read very little Australian literature since I started blogging in 2008, and I thought I would try my hand at reading some more Australian literature.