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The Living Sea of Waking Dreams Reviews

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

Richard Flanagan

2.93 out of 5

8 reviews

Imprint: Chatto & Windus
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publication date: 14 Jan 2021
ISBN: 9781784744182

An ember storm of a novel, this is Booker Prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan at his most moving-and astonishing-best.

4 stars out of 5
27 Jan 2021

"a raging tale about grief and loss that asks existential questions"

The world is burning and the sixth mass extinction is under way. When Anna’s finger disappears, and then a short while later her knee, she thinks curiously little of it. But then she begins to notice disappearances everywhere, and all around people refuse to see what is really happening. The Booker Prize winner’s eighth novel is a raging tale about grief and loss that asks existential questions – is prolonging death the same as living? Will we refuse to see the flames? – but which contains moments of stillness and magic, too.


2 stars out of 5
Jon Day
25 Jan 2021

"Family tragedy meets magical realist fantasia in the Australian author’s novel of love and loss"

The problem with The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is that it is all vehicle and no tenor. Flanagan’s central metaphor is a flabby one: neither specific enough to do much explanatory work, nor ambiguous enough to sustain much intrigue.

2 stars out of 5
Houman Barekat
17 Jan 2021

"a Booker winner’s walk on the surreal side"

Flanagan, who won the Booker prize in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, writes movingly about environmental destruction, but his mawkishness grates. Francie declares, “There is so much beauty in this world . . . we never see it until it is too late”; Anna wonders whether “what was really vanishing wasn’t all the birds and fish and animals and plants, but love”. The narrative is punctuated with cornily theatrical single-sentence paragraphs: “So it began”; “There was no coming back.”

2 stars out of 5
16 Jan 2021

"Written with Flanagan’s characteristic mix of humanism and emotional insight, this uneven novel could have been powerful and moving."

Flanagan’s gift is not, however, for Kafkaesque fantasy; what could have made two very different novellas is mashed into one 282-page novel. When Anna finally realises that ‘they had not been expelled from Eden... they had expelled Eden from themselves’, even the most sympathetic reader may find themselves thinking: I couldn’t care less.

3 stars out of 5
Allan Massie
10 Jan 2021

"At the heart of this latest novel from Booker winner Richard Flanagan there is a powerful tale of a family trying to decide whether to prolong the life of a dying relative, but some of the more fantastical elements seem out of kilter"

We all read novels differently. It is only fair that a reviewer who is less than pleased or satisfied by a novel should acknowledge that others may find it marvelous. I think there’s a good and very interesting and sympathetic domestic novel of family life and tension, addressing a painful question about the morality of prolonging life, but that this comes close to being suffocated by fanciful invention. The climate crisis makes for a compelling backdrop; nevertheless it too distracts from what seems the essential theme of the novel; how this divided family confronts the reality of approaching death; and whimsy about fingers and knees falling off a woman’s body is silly and irritating, out of key with the realistic element of the story.

4 stars out of 5
Sam Leith
9 Jan 2021

"This magical new novel is about our loss of connection to nature – and to each other"

Again, Flanagan just about gets away with this excursion into magical realism, although it risks upsetting the register. The core of this novel is a fiercely well-observed account of the psychological twists and turns, the stress points and the double-binds, of familial love. The strangeness of its telling is a living response to a world that is, as John Clare knew, more ungraspable than we apprehend: “Even the dearest that I loved the best/ Are strange – nay, rather, stranger than the rest.”

3 stars out of 5
James Walton
8 Jan 2021

" The individual elements are handled with impressive conviction — but, rather than cohering, they’re left to jostle uneasily against each other"

There is, then, no mistaking the author’s message here, which at times moves from the appealingly heartfelt to less appealing hellfire sermonising. Luckily Flanagan is wise enough to place his wider concerns, and the accompanying magic realism, within the sturdy framework of a conventional family narrative — the trouble being that this framework is so brilliantly done that the more traditional satisfactions it provides often overshadow and occasionally even undermine the apocalyptic environmental stuff.

4 stars out of 5
16 Oct 2020

"The Living Sea of Waking Dreams at its best when it balances its vehemence with its beauty, when it leaves space for the reader to wander and wonder"

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams at its best when it balances its vehemence with its beauty, when it leaves space for the reader to wander and wonder – eucalypt leaves swinging down like “lazing scimitars”; a moth thrumming its “Persian rug” wings.

Flanagan’s novel may be brutal, but unlike Terzo and Anna – so ferociously determined “to save their mother from her own wishes” – it is not wilfully cruel. Francie’s decline is rendered as a slow motion horror, but she is never the monster. Dying can be an undignified business, but it is apathy that the Booker prize-winning author finds grotesque. Mollified by social media (“blessed Novocaine of the soul”) and peak TV (“bedtime fairy-tales for adults”), his disappearing populace resign themselves to fading away. For confronting the lost noses, fingers, breasts and eyes would mean finding a way to speak to each other about everything else that is missing.