Wanting follows two interconnected storylines set about twenty-five years apart: that of Mathinna, an Aboriginal girl sent to live with the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines at the settlement of Wybalenna on Flinders Island; and Charles Dickens, the lauded actor and author and friend to Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the ex-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Sir John Franklin. She asks Dickens to help refute the story that Sir John and his men had resorted to cannibalism in order to survive when their two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, had become stuck in ice in the Arctic.
When Sir John and Lady Jane were sent to replace Sir Arthur as governor (Lady Jane was the brains behind Sir John, the presence), they visit the settlement of Wybalenna, where the Tasmanian Aborigines had been removed to after the War between blacks and white settlers was won by the latter. Separated from their ancestral land, converted to a poorly-understood Christianity and fed typical English food that left them riddled with disease and sickness, the Aborigines are dying quickly. But Mathinna catches the eye of Lady Jane as she dances, barefoot and dressed in animal skins, on the beach. Disguising her desire for a child of her own, Lady Jane adopts the girl as part of a social experiment – to civilise the savage.
In London, Dickens and his friend Wilkie Collins write and stage a play based on the fate of the two Arctic ships, The Frozen Deep. After the success it enjoys in Dicken’s little theatre in his own home, he puts on larger performances and so needs to hire some “real” actors: a woman and her three daughters. The youngest, Ellen, draws Dickens’ eye – but he has spent a lifetime determined to rise above primitive emotions, to be civilised. It is in the guise of the martyred character that he plays on the stage, that he can speak as he feels.
This theme of wanting, of denying yourself – and, with it’s links to the idea of civilisation vs. primitivism, holds up our repressed notions for ridicule – runs through both stories and draws them tightly together. Without the title of the novel to draw your attention to it, you could perhaps miss it, as it’s not a glaringly obvious theme. Subtly told and subtly played, Flanagan makes you work a bit. At times, with its almost ironic, deeply narrative voice, it reads too much like a documentary: the reader knows more than the characters, and there is at once a strange juxtaposition between sympathetic (but, in their honesty, rarely likeable) characters becoming very real to you, and this positing of time and place and history. Rather than “pretend” to resurrect the past as if the present didn’t exist, as most historical fiction is written (determined to avoid present knowledge, for instance), Wanting is very much aware of where it all went, of consequence and the bigger picture. There’s something deeply nostalgic about this style of historical fiction, this way of conjuring ghosts – for they are ghosts, now; that comes across strongly. This quality only makes the story that much more heartfelt and searing.
The history of the Tasmanian Aborigines isn’t well known outside of Australia – outside of Tasmania, even. One of my favourite books of all time, English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, did an amazing job of educating me about it. I knew, from my own education in Tasmanian schools, that the white colonial settlers pretty much massacred them all. Much like they had a bounty on the thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger), they had a bounty on aborigines. The Black War – the war between the settlers and the aborigines – killed off even more. But it was their removal to Flinders Island, an island in the Bass Strait between Tasmania and the mainland, that finished them off. There are no “pure blood” Tasmanian aborigines left; haven’t been for a long time. But there are many many people with aboriginal blood – and you’d never even know it. The ghosts live on; they have the last laugh.
There’s something deeply magical and mystical and quietly grieving about my home state. I’ve always felt that it’s holding back, that it’s just tolerating our presence, waiting to welcome back it’s true people, the people who really lived there and understood it. I’ve always loved it, from the dry yellow grass of the grazing land to the wild and impenetrable forests; the craggy, slumbering mountains and crystal-clear water trickling downs their sides from snowmelt; the pretty remains of English colonialism – the deciduous trees, the plentiful flowers, the bees and fruit trees and green green grass. The dry drought-plagued east coast, the rainforests of the west coast, the alpine interior, the windswept north-east where wombats graze and Tasmanian devils try to find food on the beach after the tide’s gone out. The rabbits and gorse, plagues both, that the English brought with them; the ruins of Port Arthur and Sarah Island and how the stones echo with ghosts… There’s more than one reason why Tassie beckons to so many artists. Richard Flanagan is one of the only contemporary authors to actually write about it. Did you know that Tasmania has the cleanest air in the world? Did you know that government and the logging industry (which is HUGE) are doing their damnedest to cut down all the old-growth forests, which has devastating effects on the native wildlife as well as rainfall, erosion, bushfires etc. Did you know that the logging industry used poisoned vegetables to kill possums and other animals, so they wouldn’t make new homes in their plantations? In view of a lack of evidence, it’s my belief that their use of a banned poisonous substance, 1080, as well as the toxins the logging industry is polluting our waterways with, has led to the Devil facial tumour disease that could make the Tasmanian Devil extinct in a few years.
No sadder than the fate of our beautiful island is the fate of the aborigines, displayed in all its gruesomeness in Wanting. In comparison, Dickens’ story could not possibly touch me in the same way or as deeply. There were a few times where I was irritated that this other story was detracting from the story of Mathinna – but it doesn’t, it gives broader context and understanding of the way people thought “back then” – not so different from how they think today, really. Mathinna’s story is all the more tragic for this other story. Actually, it made me glad to have The Terror by Dan Simmons on my shelf, ready to read, because the true story is touched upon here. I’m also interested in reading Drood (by the same author, about Charles Dickens), at some point. But it was Mathinna’s story that felt almost personal.
By the way, I have been to Flinders Island. I was perhaps eleven, twelve. My parents had made money off the farm for the first time in my life – their best crop of opium poppies (Tasmania is one of the only places in the world where it is legal – though highly regulated and controlled – to grow opium poppies, which are used, of course, for medicine – morphine, especially) – and we had our first-ever family holiday to a new place: Flinders Island, for five days. We got there by a very small plane that didn’t have a real floor: a tin bucket in the sky. Flinders Island is beautiful. There are secret beaches on that island like you’ve never seen: the sand is covered with tiny, brilliantly coloured little cone-shaped shells; you can pan for diamonds, and eat mutton-bird. The cars are all rusty, from the sea-salty air. I’d love to revisit one day.