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DEATH OF A RIVER GUIDE by Richard Flanagan Kirkus Star


by Richard Flanagan

Pub Date: March 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-8021-1682-5
Publisher: Grove

The Aboriginal and European antecedents and origins of the remote Australian state of Tasmania are powerfully evoked in Flanagan's superb (1994) debut fiction, preceded in the US by his equally impressive later novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (2000).

The story's told in flashbacks (in the manner of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge")—or "visions"—experienced by river guide Aljaz Cosini during the final moments of the journey, when his raft capsizes and he drowns. Those visions comprise a richly layered narrative that leaps among such events and experiences as Aljaz's own birth, his troubled youth and volatile relationship with (half-Chinese) Couta Ho (the mother of his infant daughter, who dies in her crib); the histories of (Yugoslavian) mother Sonja and racially mixed father Harry, who met in Trieste during WWII, and the entangled misadventures of Harry's colorful family, dominated by such memorable figures as Harry's possibly mad Aunt Ellie (no mean fantasist herself, psychically attuned to both Tasmania's persecuted "old people" and the spirits who pursue them) and his grandfather Ned Quade, murderer, cannibal, and escaped convict, who is nevertheless sustained by his ironical vision (which permeates the story, in several surprising ways) of 'the New Jerusalem." Flanagan mixes these heady materials skillfully, focusing on illustrations of the inherited rootlessness and restlessness that have shaped Aljaz ("It had become easier, not belonging; he had learnt to cope with that, had made a life out of it, drifting"). And the narrative is enlivened by such magical-realist particulars as a funeral at which the crucified Christ appears to bleed, the image of a baby stolen and raised by a "sea eagle," and the spectacle of a bedspread permanently stained by a woman's tears.

Reminiscent of Rodney Hall's Just Relations (1983) and, inevitably, of García Márquez, but a work of considerable originality nevertheless. Flanagan's two novels rank with the finest fiction out of Australia since the heyday of Patrick White.