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The Living Sea of Waking Dreams


The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

Australia is on fire, and Anna’s mother, Francie, is dying a painful death. Despite her brother Tommy’s warnings and Francie’s increasingly explicit wishes, Anna and her other brother, Terzo, argue that Francie’s life should be extended at all costs. Over the years, Anna and Terzo mostly have stayed away from their childhood home in Tasmania, leaving Tommy to care for Francie and live with the family secrets and traumas. But as Anna is drawn home more and more frequently due to Francie’s decline, she too must face them.

THE LIVING SEA OF WAKING DREAMS by Richard Flanagan is the peculiar and bewitching story of Anna’s confrontation with aging, mortality and ethical responsibility.

"Cautionary and strange, THE LIVING SEA OF WAKING DREAMS is a powerful rumination on frailty and mortality."

When Anna can pull herself away from the social media feeds on her phone, she works as an architect in Australia. Her life with her partner, Meg, is peaceful, though she is concerned about her adult son, Gus, who spends most of his time online gaming. Anna is the center of the novel, but she is constantly responding to Francie. However, Flanagan introduces readers to Tommy first. We read of his anxiety over Francie’s health and environmental realities facing the planet, not to mention his memories of the awful Catholic school he attended growing up along with Terzo and their other brother, Ronnie.

Ronnie, having died by suicide at just 14 years old, is a specter in THE LIVING SEA OF WAKING DREAMS. But as the tale progresses, Francie and Anna grow more ghost-like as well. Francie’s body, despite Anna and Terzo’s best efforts, is dying; as that happens, Anna’s is disappearing.

For the purposes of the narrative, Anna’s disappearance is actually happening. First, she loses a finger, followed by a knee and a breast. No one seems to notice these inexplicable changes in her body or worry about her missing parts. Anna soon begins to see the disappearance of others; as Francie barely hangs on and asks for relief from her suffering, Gus is fading part by part. Anna experiences a seismic shift in reality but stubbornly holds on to her ignorance and refusal to see other perspectives until it is too late. She hopes that her efforts to save an endangered parrot will restore some semblance of order, but glimpses into another reality continue to beckon.

Flanagan tells his story with a dreamy and fluid, almost rambling style that exposes a nightmare of responses to traumas both natural and expected, and those inflicted through willful harm and ignorance. Anna’s loss of body parts, Francie’s dying hallucinations, and the environmental destruction of Australia are all related, emotionally and metaphorically, if not in reality. Anna and Terzo’s treatment of Francie and Tommy, whose stutter --- and not his compassion, patience, competence and loyalty --- is the lens through which the siblings see him, is cringe-inducing, and Flanagan wisely holds back much of the family dynamic and history. Readers are dropped down into a smoldering landscape, thick with smoke obscuring vision and easy interpretation.

Cautionary and strange, THE LIVING SEA OF WAKING DREAMS is a powerful rumination on frailty and mortality.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on May 28, 2021

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams
by Richard Flanagan

  • Publication Date: April 26, 2022
  • Genres: Dystopian, Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0593313704
  • ISBN-13: 9780593313701