Death of a River Guide

Death of a River Guide, Richard Flanagan, 1994

  • Australia, #22
  • Paperback, Alibris.com, $0.99
  • Read January 2015
  • Rating: 3.5/5
  • Opening line: As I was born the umbilical cord tangled around my neck and I came into the world both arms flailing, unable to scream and thereby take in the air necessary to begin life outside of the womb, being garrotted by the very thing that had until that time succoured me and given me life.
  • Recommended for: Reading breaks between fever dreams

I didn’t intend to wait this long between updates. The last week’s been a little bit crazy. My husband graduates from his MBA on Friday, an event which apparently requires several weeks of parties wherein large herds of thirty-somethings relive their college days by downing an unhealthy number of tequila shots (is there a healthy number of tequila shots? Discuss). My in-laws are driving over from Ireland tomorrow for the ceremony and we’re fighting a losing battle to get the apartment clean before they get here. Next week we will be moving from London to San Francisco and so in between the MBA festivities we’re trying to see all our other friends to say goodbye, and going through our belongings, packing and sorting, attempting to whittle them down to a reasonable amount for a transatlantic move. And now I have a bad cold as well (the aforementioned parties and tequila shots being a possible contributing factor) so I’m shuffling around the house in a codeine haze, like a mouth-breathing zombie, moving things aimlessly from one box to another, leaving a trail of crumpled tissues in my wake. At some point I’m just going to give up and watch four episodes of House of Cards and go to sleep.

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London, 2014

I should have expected to be sad about leaving London; leaving always wounds me. I was wistful leaving Oxford two years ago, and wept to say goodbye to Dublin three years before that. In fact, of all the places I’ve lived, the only one I left with completely unmixed joy was LA (which I think is something a lot of people can relate to). But I never wanted to move to London in the first place. I was hoping my husband would do his degree in California, which would have meant moving there in 2013, right after our wedding. Instead, he was given a scholarship to London and there was little debate; it made sense to stay here for another two years. We moved from Oxford that August and I was bitter about it; I was tired of feeling like an alien, and missing my family in the States. And now, two years later, I have grown, if not to love, at least to feel a tolerant affection for this noisy unfriendly city.

Hampstead Heath, London, 2013
Hampstead Heath, London, 2013

Last week it was warm and sunny (it’s easy to love London in these conditions) and I cycled out to Hampstead Heath to swim in the ladies’ pond (which is as delightful as it sounds). I saw a peregrine falcon hanging in the cloudless sky and I marveled as ever at this Narnia-like world tucked away behind London’s loud traffic, which seems to unfold and expand as you enter it, a world of quiet woodland and birdsong, of wide fields where insects hum and buzz and the sun, when it is warm, bakes the tall grass almost white. I sat on the top level of a double-decker bus as it wound through Camden, where we used to live, and watched the tourists press among the food stalls in the market and amble along the canal path where I used to cycle to work. For the fourth of July we invited our friends to a good-bye picnic in Regent’s Park and we played football (both American and European) and watched drunk people playing rounders and having sack races. It goes without saying that we will miss our friends; over the past five years we’ve found friends at work and in school; many of our Irish friends have moved here too, people I’ve been friends with for as long as I’ve known my husband and who he’s known for longer than that. My cousin and her wife have settled here; we’ve always been close but it was the first time we’ve ever lived in the same city, and it’s unlikely to happen again. We are sad to leave all of these, to feel the tenuous bond that connects two people stretch and thin, never knowing if it will hold strong or if it will break. In all my years of moving around I have found it hard to maintain connections with people. I have lost many good friends along the way, people I thought would be part of my life forever. But time and distance have a way of eroding the bonds you think are the strongest. To say that we are sad to leave our friends is a vast understatement. But it comes as some surprise to me to realize that I will miss London itself as well. I will miss its vastness and sprawl, the hot claustrophobia of the tube in summer, the red buses careening through the narrow streets, the mansions and castles and cathedrals that suddenly loom as you round the corner of a council estate, the open green spaces and waterways in the heart of the city, the history and the majesty and the squalor. I will miss it, even though I am ready for the next step. We can’t live in the past, no matter how much places may tug at our hearts and minds. We can’t allow the past, and our regrets, to halt us in our tracks.

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London, 2014

But this is knowledge that comes too late to Aljaz Cosini, the protagonist of Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide (ok, look, this is really reaching, but I’ve got to find some way to segue from my excuses into an actual book review, so this is what I’ve got. Sorry). Cosini’s life is halted by a single tragic event and he spends the next ten years (or thereabouts; it’s been a while since I read this and I can’t remember exactly, and I left the book in St. Louis over the holidays so I can’t look it up) drifting aimlessly, severing his connections with other people, and failing to live his life. It is only while dying—I’m not giving anything away here, it’s in the title—that he is able to come to terms with his own past and then with his ancestry, with the past of the people who came before him.

It’s a pretty good book, but a little too self-consciously literary for my taste; the writing can be pointlessly convoluted and verbose and I got the sense, at times, that Flanagan was aiming for the style of Patrick White but not quite getting there. The central device—an exploration of Australian (and specifically Tasmanian) heritage through the life and ancestry of one man, moving backward in time from recent European and Asian immigrants to early English settlers, through convicts, to Aborigines, and of how all these disparate peoples fit together to form modern Australian society—is an interesting idea, but again I don’t think Flanagan quite pulls it off. It feels a bit disjointed. Of course, part of this impression could be derived from the fact that I read this book in between bouts of vomiting while I was laid up with norovirus. In some ways it’s a good book to read when you’re feverish because it’s hallucinatory and unfocused, but on the other hand I may have followed it a little better if I had read it under different circumstances (on an unrelated note, this is the second time I have had norovirus over New Year’s eve and it is not the most fun way to celebrate).

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London, 2014

One thing I did appreciate, though, was revisiting the territory of For the Term of His Natural Life a century and a half later, and seeing how the infamous Port Arthur penal colony affected the development of life in Tasmania. The brutal history that inspired the earlier book has obviously not been forgotten, and the same stories and legends that inspired Marcus Clarke are still alive in Flanagan’s work. If you want to read this book, and aren’t familiar with Tasmanian colonial history, I highly recommend Clarke’s work as a primer.

In this way it was a nice book to read toward the end of my Australia list–referencing a lot of the history and cultural issues that came up in my previous readings–but it wasn’t one of my favorites from the project.

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London, 2015
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