Adventurous Tasmanian writer Flanagan (The Unknown Terrorist, 2008, etc.) skillfully combines several partially known historical events to create complex and riveting fiction.
His fifth novel features two preeminent Victorian figures: beloved novelist Charles Dickens and polar explorer Sir John Franklin, whose search for the fabled “Northwest Passage” to the Arctic ended in failure and death. In this inventive fusion of their separate histories, Dickens accedes to widowed Lady Jane Franklin’s appeal that he publish conclusive disproof of allegations that the doomed northern travelers resorted to cannibalism. Reaching back into several characters’ past lives, Flanagan vividly depicts the Franklins’ experience on the penal colony island of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), where Sir John acts as governor to a largely aboriginal population, and his fastidious wife conceives grand “ideas for projects and ventures and organizations.” One such “project” is the childless Lady Jane’s determination to adopt and civilize a charming orphaned aboriginal girl, an act of willed kindness demonstrably doomed to failure. In the novel’s present day, we observe Dickens eternally hard at work, pulled in far too many directions at once, ever more estranged from his fat, unlovely wife Catherine—herself burdened by having borne him ten children. Dickens’ obsessive fascination with the tragic story of the Franklin expedition leads him to write a play about it with colleague Wilkie Collins and to star in it himself. The great author’s encounter with beautiful young actress Ellen Ternan erodes his belief in his own stoical forbearance; he learns that he, like the Franklins in their insular Southern Pacific paradise, “could no longer deny wanting.” Everything dovetails beautifully, if rather too neatly, as the richly imagined multiple narrative arrives at its several sorrowful conclusions.
An ingenious, thoughtful and potent demonstration of this assured author’s imaginative versatility.