Wanting

By Richard Flanagan

     

There's a curious meeting at the heart of this novel. In 1854, Lady Jane Franklin, widow of the explorer Sir John Franklin, invited Charles Dickens over for tea. At the time, London was atwitter with the news that a lesser explorer, John Rae, had discovered evidence of cannibalism among the remains of the members of Franklin's expedition to the Northwest Passage, which had gone missing nine years earlier. Lady Jane begged Dickens to refute the accusation. Dickens agreed. The charge pierced the idea at the heart of the British Empire: that colonialism was civilization's triumph over savagery. "We all have appetites," says Flanagan's fictionalized Dickens. "But only the savage agrees to sate them." Flanagan, the Tasmanian-born author of the brilliant Gould's Book of Fish, turns those bones of history into a beautifully realized rumination on love, desire, and the tortured history of his native land. It's a tricky thing to pull off—the author cuts between Dickens's life in 1850s London and Sir Franklin's stint as Tasmania's governor, in the 1830s—but Flanagan does it with grace. As we watch a young Lady Jane's motherly love for an orphaned Aboriginal child bloom and wither under the colonial strictures of the time, Dickens's own frozen passions are thawed by a beautiful actress. Though the great writer fiercely defends Franklin against the (probably true) charges of cannibalism, he finds happiness by giving in to his own savage appetites. And, lo, the empire does not fall.

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