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"Wanting begins in 1839 when the famous Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin assumes governorship of the remote penal colony of Van Diemen's Land. His wife, Lady Jane, becomes captivated with a lively young Aboriginal girl called Mathinna, one of the few survivors of a brutal war of extermination waged against the island's original inhabitants. The Franklins adopt Mathinna, making her the subject of a grand social experiment - to determine whether science, Christianity, and reason can be imposed in the place of savagery, impulse, and desire." "Years ...
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"Wanting begins in 1839 when the famous Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin assumes governorship of the remote penal colony of Van Diemen's Land. His wife, Lady Jane, becomes captivated with a lively young Aboriginal girl called Mathinna, one of the few survivors of a brutal war of extermination waged against the island's original inhabitants. The Franklins adopt Mathinna, making her the subject of a grand social experiment - to determine whether science, Christianity, and reason can be imposed in the place of savagery, impulse, and desire." "Years later, on an expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage, Sir John Franklin, with two ships and his crew, disappears in the Arctic. England is horrified by reports of cannibalism filtering back from search parties, no one more so than the most celebrated novelist of the day, Charles Dickens, for whom Franklin's story becomes a means to plumb the frozen depths of his own life." As several lives are transfigured by unexpected events and unnoticed tragedies, Wanting transforms into a stunning meditation on the ways in which desire - and its denial - shape our lives.
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Editorial Reviews

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. The authorial tone of voice is controlling and omniscient, as in a Victorian novel. We enter the minds of his key characters at will and learn their most intimate thoughts; ironies and unforeseen historical consequences are alluded to with full wisdom of hindsight.
—The New York Times
Michiko Kakutani
In cutting among the stories of Dickens, the Franklins and young Mathinna, Mr. Flanagan creates a musical echo chamber in which thematic leitmotifs—dealing with reason and its limitations, imperialism and its social fallout, self-delusion and its consequences—tie their very different experiences together. Mr. Flanagan does a magical job of conjuring his native Tasmania as it must have appeared to English settlers…And he enlivens his discursive narrative with some dazzling set pieces
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
Flanagan has…spun a tragic story that connects the lives of the 19th century's most expendable people with such luminaries as Sir John [Franklin] and Charles Dickens…you'll quickly be drawn into the variations of sadness and yearning that connect these famous figures, rendering them all the more familiar and tragic.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Flanagan follows The Unknown Terrorist with an intricate exploration of civility and savagery that hinges on two famous 19th-century Englishmen: Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin and Charles Dickens. In 1839 Tasmania, a tribe of Aboriginals are in the Van Diemen's Land penal colony, soon to be governed by Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane. The Franklins adopt a native girl, Mathinna, whom Lady Jane hopes to use as proof that civility lies in all human beings, even savages. Years later, in 1854 London, Lady Jane asks Charles Dickens to help defend her late husband's honor from accusations of cannibalism. Dickens, devastated by his daughter's death from pneumonia, publishes a defense of Franklin's honor, then develops a stage adaptation of Franklin's demise that forces the writer to face his suffering and introduces him to a comely young actress. The interlaced stories focus on conquering the yearning that exists both in the Aboriginals and the noble English gentlemen, and though Flanagan has a tendency to hammer home his ideas, his prose is strong and precise, and the depiction of desire's effects is sublime. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The latest novel from acclaimed Australian author Flanagan (Gould's Book of Fish; The Unknown Terrorist) is a meditation on the power of desire to transform lives. In an isolated Australian penal colony in the 1840s, an Aboriginal girl named Mathinna is adopted by the English governor, celebrated Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, and his wife, Lady Jane. Devastated by her inability to bear a child, Lady Jane longs to coddle Mathinna but instead sets her on a rigid course of "improvement." Their thwarted relationship and Mathinna's subsequent emotional devastation form the aching core of the novel. A decade later, as Sir John and his crew slowly starve to death after an Arctic shipwreck, a London writer named Charles Dickens finds himself haunted by the story of the failed expedition. This obsession becomes The Frozen Deep, a play through which Dickens seeks to redeem his own emptiness. As always, Flanagan's prose is beautifully crafted, at once elegant and astonishing. This is Flanagan's most accessible work to date, and it should draw new fans. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ1/09; for a very different take on Charles Dickens, see Matthew Pearl's The Last Dickens, reviewed on p. 96.-Ed.]
—Kelsy Peterson

Kirkus Reviews
Adventurous Tasmanian writer Flanagan (The Unknown Terrorist, 2008, etc.) skillfully combines several partially known historical events to create complex and riveting fiction. His fifth novel features two preeminent Victorian figures: beloved novelist Charles Dickens and polar explorer Sir John Franklin, whose search for the fabled "Northwest Passage" to the Arctic ended in failure and death. In this inventive fusion of their separate histories, Dickens accedes to widowed Lady Jane Franklin's appeal that he publish conclusive disproof of allegations that the doomed northern travelers resorted to cannibalism. Reaching back into several characters' past lives, Flanagan vividly depicts the Franklins' experience on the penal colony island of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), where Sir John acts as governor to a largely aboriginal population, and his fastidious wife conceives grand "ideas for projects and ventures and organizations." One such "project" is the childless Lady Jane's determination to adopt and civilize a charming orphaned aboriginal girl, an act of willed kindness demonstrably doomed to failure. In the novel's present day, we observe Dickens eternally hard at work, pulled in far too many directions at once, ever more estranged from his fat, unlovely wife Catherine-herself burdened by having borne him ten children. Dickens' obsessive fascination with the tragic story of the Franklin expedition leads him to write a play about it with colleague Wilkie Collins and to star in it himself. The great author's encounter with beautiful young actress Ellen Ternan erodes his belief in his own stoical forbearance; he learns that he, like the Franklins in their insular Southern Pacificparadise, "could no longer deny wanting." Everything dovetails beautifully, if rather too neatly, as the richly imagined multiple narrative arrives at its several sorrowful conclusions. An ingenious, thoughtful and potent demonstration of this assured author's imaginative versatility. Agent: Melanie Jackson/Melanie Jackson Agency
The Barnes & Noble Review
Richard Flanagan has an important story he wants to tell, with a universal theme about the human heart underlying it. A Tasmanian writer, Flanagan has shown in his previous work that he is vividly haunted by his island's violent history. This time around, in Wanting, he turns (or perhaps tosses -- he gives the impression of having a nightmare) to the horrible story of the near-extermination, much of it deliberate, of Tasmania's aboriginal population at the hands of its white settlers. A good deal of his material and all of his personages are factual; Flanagan has gathered a sheaf of history's pages from what would appear at first to be unrelated sources and then gone to work like a magician with a newspaper, cutting away the majority before unfolding a paper chain of associated figures.

The first person in the chain is Mathinna, a Tasmanian girl born in a squalid resettlement camp in 1835, when her people were already mostly dead, and the rest dying. Mathinna has been noticed, just barely, by history because she spent two years of her childhood at Government House in the Tasmanian capital of Hobart, where the governer and his wife, Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin, taught her alongside Sir John's daughter, Eleanor. She was evidently a lively and attractive child (a portrait survives of her, looking bright-eyed in a red dress), but the Franklins did not adopt her, and when they left the island, she was sent to an orphanage, and later back to the resettlement camp; very little is known of the rest of her life, except that it was short and probably sad.

Sir John Franklin is the second person in the chain -- and yes, this is the John Franklin of the Franklin Expedition, which sailed off to discover the Northwest Passage and instead fell off the edge of the world, thus becoming its own fabled quest object, as the presumptively widowed Lady Jane organized a number of highly publicized expeditions to go in search of her husband.

Lady Jane leads us to Charles Dickens, because nine years after Sir John disappeared in a glare of white, another explorer found evidence, bolstered by Inuit testimony, suggesting that Franklin and his men had perished from cold and hunger, and that some of the men had resorted to cannibalism. Lady Jane, outraged at this slur on English fortitude and good sportsmanship, enlisted Dickens to write a rebuttal, which he did, in his magazine Household Words. Dickens's argument -- that savages give in to unrestrained desire, whereas what makes a man civilized is his ability to withstand temptation -- is so impassioned, it suggests some inner turmoil. Dickens then had his friend Wilkie Collins write a play about northern exploration called The Frozen Deep, which sublimates the theme of cannibalism into sexual possessiveness. In Collins's play, Richard Wardour hungrily loves a woman who in turn loves a different man, and Wardour ultimately sacrifices himself so that the woman and his rival may live happily ever after. Dickens himself played the part of Wardour onstage -- and proved to be a sensation, as he seemed to live the role more than act it. During the production he met the next person in the chain, the 17-year-old actress Ellen Ternan. Nine months later, the 45-year-old Dickens left his wife and embarked on a secret liaison with Ternan that lasted until his death.

This is wonderfully workable material, which Flanagan has grouped into alternating chapters, first telling Mathinna's story, then jumping ahead a few years to tell Dickens's, then back again. It's easy to see why Flanagan was attracted to the idea of placing these linked lives in close proximity so that, like wine glasses in a glass harmonica, they would set each other vibrating on sympathetic frequencies. He says as much in his Author's Note: "The stories of Mathinna and Dickens, with their odd but undeniable connection, suggested to me a meditation on desire -- the cost of its denial, the centrality and force of its power in human affairs."

But perhaps exactly there -- with that terse formulation describing his intentions -- is to be located the source of the limitations of this novel. In other words, it seems that Flanagan knew from the beginning what kind of novel he wanted to write, what points he wanted to make, and then proceeded with energy and enthusiasm to make them. This is a wise procedure for writing a historical essay, or perhaps a "meditation," but less so for a novel, which, even if not fully a "baggy monster," in Henry James's phrase, should have at least something monstrous about it, by which I mean something puzzling, elusive, irreducible to one of those theme papers your high school English teacher was always fatuously demanding that you write. I couldn't locate a moment in this book where I sensed that Flanagan was surprised at where the book was taking him; thus none of its developments surprised me.

The prose seems overdetermined from the beginning, when the reader turns from the title page to the two epigraphs, one from Dostoevsky and one from Ecclesiastes, both of which characterize and use the word "wanting." It continues in that vein, hammering out the theme of desire vs. discipline, savagery vs. putative civilization: "After all, wasn't that control precisely what marked the English out as different from savages?" "[T]he mark of wisdom and civilization was the capacity to conquer desire, to deny it and crush it." "You see, Wilkie, that is Franklin's experience and his lesson. We all have appetites and desires. But only the savage agrees to sate them." "A savage, my dear Wilkie, be he Esquimau or an Otaheitian, is someone who succumbs to his passions." "No moment was to be wasted, and all reckless passions were to be subjugated to the discipline of industry." "The distance between savagery and civilisation is measured by our control of our basest instincts." And so on, and on -- all the way to the last word of the last Dickens chapter: "And he, a man who had spent a life believing that giving in to desire was the mark of a savage, realized he could no longer deny wanting."

There's also too much about white vs. black, about frozen seas and frozen hearts, for the good of the novel. One particularly awkward patch stems from Flanagan's overt linking of the cannibalism theme to Dickens's memories of his early love for, and rejection by, Maria Beadnell. "Maria Beadnell and her vile family had treated him as little better than a corpse to play with, to feast upon for their own amusement." As if that were not already too much, here's this, four pages later: "Had he not yearned to bite into Maria Beadnell's thighs as keenly as the Esquimaux had wanted to feast on old Sir John's gentlemanly drumsticks?" (That's got my vote for the worst sentence of 2009.)

These faults of emphasis are on the level of language; there are others on the level of plot. Whenever a novelist tells a story based on historical fact, there's a temptation either to fill in a lacuna in the record with an invented incident that metaphorically nails down a point the writer worries would otherwise remain nebulous, or even to change something in the record to accomplish the same end. Flanagan does both. For example, history tells us nothing about Sir John Franklin's attitude or behavior toward Mathinna. But the larger story here is the perfectly true, and terribly painful, story of the violation of the aboriginal Tasmanians' bodies and culture at the hands of whites. Therefore, in this novel, Sir John Franklin rapes Mathinna.

As for changing facts -- when Dickens acted the part of Richard Wardour in The Frozen Deep, he did not play opposite Ellen Ternan (who had a minor role in the play), but her sister Maria. In a scene that reads far too much like the mechanical maneuverings of romance fiction (besides being overly reminiscent of the movie Shakespeare in Love), Flanagan has Maria fall ill on the night of the final performance, so that Dickens can play opposite Ellen, both of them in roles freighted with a heavy symbolic relevance to the romantic drama developing in their private lives.

This is not to say that a writer should never do such things; but it's a dangerous temptation, because it's easy, and the usual result is to overdo it. In Flanagan's case, the more he ties together his wine glasses, the less they resonate. Or to ring a final change on his own metaphor, his passion for making his staged meanings obvious to the back row has overwhelmed the discipline of his craft. --Brian Hall

Brian Hall is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Impossible Country: A Journey through the Last Days of Yugoslavia. His most recent book is a novel, Fall of Frost.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802144775
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/3/2010
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 541,891
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Customer Reviews

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  • Posted April 10, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A Novel that will grow on you!

    After reading the first view pages, it seemed that the book was going to be dry in the sense of having very little feeling or emotion. It turned out to be the opposite. The author evoked emotions of anger and sadness and I kept thinking that throughout the centuries western culture has continued to control the lives of other humans which usually results in tragedy. The author has shown this very clearly and is to be commended on it. That is why it is such a good novel.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted November 30, 2009

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