Wanting by Richard Flanagan
Finished: Apr. 4, 2009
First Published: Mar. 9, 2009
Genre: historical fiction, Victorian
Reason for Reading: Sent to me as a Review Copy by Harper Collins Canada.
The war had ended as wars sometimes do, unexpectedly.
Comments: When all is said and done this is a strange little story. It is two stories in one; first that of the past where Sir John Franklin is the Lieutenant-Governor with Lady Jane Franklin of Van Diemen's Land (currently Tasmania, Australia) and how they come to 'adopt' a little Aborigine girl to prove that a savage can be civilized. Then there is the story of the future, one where Lady Jane, whose husband has now been missing for 9 nine years and she beseeches Charles Dickens to write an article squashing the horrible rumours of cannibalism among her husbands' last crew. This he does but the story does not centre on that but on the relationship between himself and Ellen Ternan.
The story set in the past of Sir John, Lady Jane and Mathinna, the little black girl, is very absorbing and could have been a book itself without the other half of the 'future' plot. What Lady Jane did from the goodness of her heart turned against all those concerned and became a tragedy. The added story of Dickens really felt out of place here; it's only connection to the other story is that Lady Jane appears at the beginning and at the end, plus the plot revolves around the time when Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were putting on their play, No Frozen Deep, concerning a melodramatic love story set on an Arctic exploration. I can't say I enjoyed this second part of the story at all, it seemed pointless to the plot.
The book is told in chapters which suddenly switch back and forth from one plot to another going from the past to the future willy nilly, which creates a somewhat dizzying affect to the reader until one has settled down into the style. The writing is good, the story is fast-paced and easy to read and certainly a page-turner during the Mathinna scenes.
But ultimately the theme of this book is not the plot but that of the title, "wanting". Everyone in this story is wanting love. Sir John wants the love of a woman as Lady Jane makes it known early in the marriage that she finds wifely duties distasteful. Lady Jane wants maternal love, though she succumbs to her wifely duties at such times as necessary she is rewarded with being barren. Mathinna wants the love of belonging. She is a black who acts too white to be accepted by the blacks and feels the thoughts of a white but of course is black and will not be accepted by the whites . Then we have Charles Dickens who desperately wants the love of Ellen. A young, coquette who, in this book, is the first person to ever truly understand him. In truth their relationship has never really been firmly decided one way or the other.
An interesting, quick read but I found the whole Charles Dickens aspect of the story to be irrelevant to the plot and could have been left out entirely to leave a much more satisfying story of the Franklins' "experiment' in raising Mathinna and the tragedy it became.