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Wanting: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 12, 2009

3.8 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews

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From 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.)
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From The New Yorker

Flanagan sets his novel in the wilds of nineteenth-century Tasmania and evokes its inhabitants with exquisite precision: a silver-haired sawyer’s hands are “like a sea eagle’s nest made of gnarled eucalypt branches”; a stolid bureaucratic type is “mastiff-faced, full-bodied and goose-bellied, heavy in all things—opinion, sensibility, morality and conversation.” The narrative scope is ambitious; we move between the story of a young Aboriginal woman wrenched from her family by the broody and bored wife of the British governor, and an account of Charles Dickens’s extramarital affairs. The connection between the two is slight (Dickens co-wrote a play about the governor’s ill-fated search for the northwest passage), but Flanagan forges from them an entirely unified meditation on desire, “the cost of its denial, the centrality and force of its power in human affairs.”
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; First Edition edition (May 12, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080211900X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802119001
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,513,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan emphasizes, through his ambiguous title, two of the most contradictory characteristics of Queen Victoria's reign---the "wanting," or desire, to conquer other lands and bring "civilization" to them, and the "want," or lack, of empathy and respect for the people and cultures which they deliberately destroy in the process. The same contradictory characteristics are also reflected in personal relationships: desire is considered "uncivilized," something to be overcome, though men routinely indulge their passions with those far "beneath" them. These ideas provide the thematic underpinning of this novel.

The novel opens in 1839, as a preacher, overseeing a small group of wretched aborigines exiled from Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania) to Flinders Island, is mystified by the increasingly "monstrous deaths" of the people under his "protection." He has been careful to demand that the aborigines adopt western dress, eat a western diet, and follow a western way of life. When their leader, King Romeo, dies an agonizing death, the Protector saws off his head for further study by British scientists. Ten pages (and fifteen years) later, Lady Jane Franklin, wife of Sir John Franklin, the former Governor of Van Dieman's Land, is in London, trying to raise money for new expeditions to the Arctic to discover the fate of her explorer husband, his ships, and their crews, lost for nine years. She has displayed the skull of King Romeo to phrenologists, who have concluded that the King was a savage, enslaved by his passions.

Ironies abound.
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Format: Hardcover
1850's Van Diemen's Land - Tasmania and the ongoing war between the whites and the blacks is a war the Aborigines can no longer win. With the colonial government offering the last and only realistic option: sanctuary at Wybalenna, the outpost on the islands of Bass Strait in return for their country, it is here amongst the sad broken-down remnants of what was once a proud race that a man called "The Protector" tries to become their savior. But nothing that he did for them could alter the fact that the people who he had bought to God's light were yet dying in a strange way. When the famous polar explorer the newly appointed Governor of Tasmania Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane Franklin travel to Flinders Island, Lady Jane befriends Mathinna, a young aborigine girl initially under the tutelage of The Protector.

Entranced by Mathinna's dancing, her slow way of moving, so distinct and so poignant, Lady Jane transports her back to Hobart as part of a new kind of experiment. Perhaps they can somehow breed some of this "savagery out" of the wayward girl. Cementing Mathinna's introduction into Hobartian society, the Governor and his wife instill in her all that is virtuous in English civilization, along with a favorite red dress, uncomfortable court shoes, and the appointment of a tutor Francis Lazaretto. Unfortunately the marriage between Sir John and Lady Jane is on shaky ground with Lady Jane feeling faint and lost. Watching Mathinna she feels she understands the child, imagining her grief, her needs, and her dreams. Even as the Franklins fall ever-more in love with the girl, Mathinna can't shake the ways of her native world.
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This extraordinary novel is framed by the death of two children. Near the beginning, in 1851, Charles Dickens' ninth and youngest child Dora dies while her father is speaking on behalf of a theatrical charity. A few pages later there is reference to the death of another child, an aboriginal girl in distant Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) called Mathinna. The book proceeds in alternating chapters in two converging time periods, moving on from Dora's death and forward to Mathinna's.

The odd-numbered chapters begin in 1838, with the visit of the Vice-Regent, Sir John Franklin, to an island colony where the few survivors of the wholesale slaughter of aborigines in the earlier part of the century have been sequestered, many dying from unexplained diseases. His wife is charmed by the dancing of Mathinna, the seven-year-old daughter of the aborigine king, and decides to have her brought up as a European lady, thus cloaking her sorrow at not being able to bear children herself in the guise of a scientific and educational experiment. Mathinna's life over the next ten years traces an extraordinary parabola; she is a delightful creation, and the story of how she is alternatively feted and abused makes devastating reading.

The connection with the life of Charles Dickens is admittedly slim. By 1851, Sir John Franklin, the former Tasmanian Vice-Regent, has disappeared on an arctic expedition and is presumed dead. His widow enlists Dickens' help in clearing his name from charges of cannibalism. As a result, Dickens becomes interested in polar exploration and, with the help of Wilkie Collins, stages a play with an arctic setting, acting the leading role himself to enormous acclaim.
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