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Book club: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

06 May 2022

Susan Gray on Richard Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, a brooding novel about end-of-life issues set in modern day Australia with its raging bushfires

RICHARD FLANAGAN’s Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North is one of this century’s best novels. But the concern with eco disaster and the use of magic realism in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams marks it out as a departure from the emotional power and straightforward parallel narratives of the earlier work.

Ostensibly, The Living Sea is told from the viewpoint of a successful architect, Anna, and is anchored in present-day Australia, but both the point of view and timeframe are malleable. The opening chapter, fragmented into 22 sections, lays out Flanagan’s bargain with the reader: that, if we persevere, all these facets will form part of a satisfying whole.

On finishing the novel, the desire go back to the beginning is overwhelming: to reread the crazy-paving introduction made up of interior dialogue and characters‘ observations, mixed in with the action at the matriarch Francie’s hospital bedside. Returning to the matrix of unfolding relationships, with insight and back story on why the characters behave as they do, is like stepping away from a mosaic, diagram guide now in hand, and seeing the entire image for the first time.

Climate change and wildlife extinction is deftly woven into a story of familial bonds and end-of-life care, and works as a broader canvas supporting the central narrative. “It was like living with a chronically sick smoker except the smoker was the world and everyone was trapped in its fouled and collapsing lungs.”

The magic realist device of “vanishings” also works to tie the personal and broader ecological extinction stories. “Between her little finger and her middle finger, where her ring finger had once connected to her hand, there was now a diffuse light, a blurring of the knuckle joint, the effect not unlike the photoshopping of problematic faces, hips, thighs, wrinkles and sundry deformities, with some truth or other blurred out of the picture. . . There was just a vanishing.”

Flanagan wrote the novel in 2016, during the Tasmanian bushfires, and then updated it the next year when bushfires raged across Australia. We learn of the bushfires’ devastation mainly through Anna’s social-media feeds, which she accesses to zone out of family commitments. Social media both frame the ecological crisis and increasingly become an extension of Anna herself.

Roman Catholicism is touched on throughout. It shapes the interior landscapes of the older generation, a structure and comfort for getting through the hardships of settler life. But it is also a source of reverberating cruelty. The Tiger, Anna’s grandmother, beats her daughter Francie to assuage the guilt of unmarried pregnancy. Francie, in turn, finds it hard to express love for her children Anna, Tommy, and Terzo, a difficulty that they continue into their own adulthood. And their brother, Ronnie, took his own life as a teenager, unable to endure the inappropriate attention of a priest at their Marist Fathers boarding school.

Tommy attributes his stutter to the school’s sexual abuse. “Burnie: port, paper-pulp mill, pigment, plant, p-p-paedophiles.” For all the ambivalence about Catholicism, Flanagan establishes early that the children’s greatest cruelty to their mother stems from denying her request for the last rites.

© Joel SagetThe author Richard Flanagan, a prizewinning Australian novelist

The novel’s depiction of end-of-life care is both terrifying and resonant for anybody who has looked after a dying loved one. As Francie’s children lobby for more and more interventions to prolong her life, she is described as a tortured animal, tethered to the wires and tubes that are prolonging her torment. “The lie was that postponed death was life.”

Francie’s illness exposes the power dynamics between her children, and their sibling hierarchy will reflect the experience of many families. “But then Tommy had more time to do more: time to help out with the small things — doctor’s visits, cooking, shopping, driving Francie to old friends for tea. . . Francie was, as she herself said, the fittest old corpse in Christendom.”

Tommy is overridden by Anna and Terzo, because he makes little money as an artist, and has a cramped home with clear lacquered pine furniture, in contrast with their symbols of wealth. Tommy’s moral authority does shine through in the end, but it is a puzzle why he cedes his agency for so long.

The language of love and care is stretched to breaking point. Family history renders Anna incapable of expressing love with any certainty, always questioning whether pronouncements of love have any meaning. Her girlfriend, Meg, is less of an overthinker. “My days are Annie days and non Annie days and only Annie days are real, Meg might text. . . When you’re not here I’m not anywhere, Anna might reply.”

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is more than the sum of its parts, and taking the elements apart diminishes it: characters start to wither if taken out of their context. Set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, the Narrow Road to the Deep North examined what happens when people have no choice, while The Living Sea of Waking Dreams focuses on what happens when they have too much.

Susan Gray writes about the arts and entertainment for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan is published by Vintage at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-5291-1405-8.

This title is discussed in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is the first of a new monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.



  1. What is the significance of Anna’s body parts disappearing?

  2. “Silence . . . is the only place where truth can be found.” Do you agree?

  3. In what ways does Flanagan present biodiversity loss in the novel? How does it make you feel?

  4. “It was like living with a chronically ill smoker.” What is the part played by the fires in the novel?

  5. What does Flanagan suggest social media are doing to his characters? Do you agree?

  6. “We never see it until it is too late.” What different things are the characters in the novel failing to see?

  7. “And like a monster Anna told her mother no.” What does Anna want for her mother? Why is it so hard to “let her go”?

  8. Many things are lost in this novel. Is anything found?

  9. “She halted, ashamed.” Anna is occasionally shocked at the way she treats Tommy. Do you relate to this feeling?

  10. “I mean, someone did it. . . But who?” Why is it so difficult to ascribe (or take) responsibility for horrors like colonial massacres, the Holocaust, and environmental devastation?


IN OUR next Reading Groups page on 10 June, we will print extra information about our next book, Jack by Marilynne Robinson. It is published by Little, Brown at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-0-349-01179-0.



Living a shiftless life, Jack, an atheist, plagued by loneliness, self-loathing, and alcohol, meets and falls in love with the schoolteacher and virtuous minister’s daughter Della Miles. As Della is black, the relationship is challenged and complicated by the racist laws of 1940s St Louis, Missouri, where interracial marriages were illegal, and a relationship with Jack could mean (for Della) social exclusion, unemployment, and imprisonment. What follows is a love story with serious questions about grace, love, and redemption. Jack is the fourth book in Marilynne Robinson’s series based in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa.



Born in Sandpoint, Idaho, in 1943, Marilynne Robinson studied at Brown University and the University of Washington, and was later a tenured English and Creative Writing Professor at the University of Iowa. She has written, in addition to five critically acclaimed novels, numerous works of non-fiction, including an account of the effects of pollution caused by the Sellafield nuclear fuel-processing plant. Robinson was raised as a Presbyterian and later joined Congregationalism, which features in her novels. Described by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as “one of the world’s most compelling English-speaking novelists”, she has received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, among other literary awards.



July: Widowland by C. J. Carey

August: Night of Fire by Colin Thubron

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