Review of Wanting by Richard Flanagan
by Richard Flanagan
We all want things. Sometimes the things we think we want are not the things we really want. Usually, the wanting is better than having. These are all familiar feelings that Richard Flanagan plays with in the aptly-named Wanting. His exploration of these ideas is deft and interesting, but the book lacks an overall unity to make it truly memorable or amazing.
I’m perplexed by Wanting’s structure, which is split between the early 1840s, when Franklin was governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and the 1850s-60s, when Dickens is approaching the height of his popularity and discovering his own powers as an amateur performer—not to mention the allure of Ellen Ternan. It’s not so much this split that perplexes me as it is Flanagan’s desire to link these two stories of Franklin, his wife, and Mathinna with Dickens and Ternan. The parallels just aren’t there. The inside cover copy of this edition claims that “several lives become conjoined by unexpected events and tragedies”, but they really don’t.
I suppose the title should give some indication of the connection Flanagan seeks to create: desire. Lady Franklin desires to see Mathinna (and, by way of synecdoche, the Aborigine population as a whole) “civilized”. She wants, in her own well-intentioned but still racist way, to disprove the brand of racists who believe that the indigenous peoples of other lands are instinctively “savage”, noble or otherwise. Sir John Franklin goes along with his wife’s projects, mostly out of habit rather than any true interest or desire—and then he finds himself drawn to Mathinna. Meanwhile, a few decades later, Dickens grapples with feelings of self-pity and guilt as he realizes he no longer desires his wife; this gets worse when he meets the young actress Ellen Ternan and realizes he’s attracted to her.
On their own, these are two interesting stories. I could happily have read a story set in 1840s Tasmania, following the Franklins from their accession to the governorship in 1839 until their departure in 1843 and beyond. I’d have happily engaged with the complicated colonial undertones present in the attempts to civilize Mathinna and assimilate her into British culture, mirrored by the Protector’s project to do much the same to Mathinna’s entire village. Flanagan’s writing is lively; he knows how to create scenes that sustain interest, and he has a good sense of description, if not dialogue. I have no doubt he could have created something compelling.
Similarly, I was very impressed by how Flanagan handles the characterization of a fictional Dickens. That’s not something one undertakes lightly. As a literary juggernaut who has a relatively well-documented life, a massive corpus of works, and plenty of things written about him, Dickens is a character that is easy to research but probably difficult to emulate. In particular, I liked how Flanagan put words into Dickens’ mouth that I can believe Dickens might actually have said: “Unlike you, Douglas [Jerrold], she [Jane Austen] didn’t understand that what pulses hard and fast through us must be there in every sentence”. Flanagan’s Dickens comes alive and entertains me even as it educates me about Dickens’ life. It also made me really want to read some more Dickens soon, which is perhaps the biggest praise I can give it.
Yet I remain unable to reconcile these two plots. I don’t really understand why Flanagan chose to pair these two stories about desire, to interlace them in such a sterile way. And in addition to being a very short book despite this combination of two stories, Wanting is also sparse in the writing department. Though I’ve praised Flanagan’s use of description and his characterization of Dickens, I do think much of his action falls flat. There is surprisingly little dialogue in this book; he resorts mostly to telling us what people think, where they come from, what they want, instead of showing us through their actions. This makes the book feel slower and far less memorable—the difference between skimming the surface of a newly-discovered ocean and just diving straight in.
It was good in its own way, but Wanting seems to suffer from an essential flaw of structure that forever prevents it from achieving greatness in my eyes. Some ideas seem brilliant but then, in execution, don’t deliver. I’m sure it worked for some people, and if it works for you, then all the more power to you. However, none of the historical perspective or personality that Flanagan invests in this work compensates for the odd parallelism he strives but fails to attain. In the end, the overall structure of the book distracted me from the story rather than heightening my appreciation of it. I wish it had it been otherwise.