Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2009

Death of a River Guide (1994), by Richard Flanagan

death-of-a-river-guideDeath of a River Guide is one of the finest books of our time. This haunting tale encompasses all that it means to be part of this land Australia – beauty and terror;  laconic present and murky past; courage, tenacity and acceptance.

(Beware: spoilers)

Aljaz Cosino is a river guide, trapped in The Cauldron on the Franklin River as the water rises.  As he drowns, he experiences visions, reliving his life as if a bereft spectator, and through magical realism, viewing the lives of his ancestors.   Through his eyes we see the horror of Tasmania’s convict past, and the rape of its indigenous people.

Flanagan weaves this story through the torrent of water that inexorably brings Aljaz to his doom.  We see his father, Harry, lose his thumb in a logging accident; we see Aljaz tormented by the loss of his baby daughter and his girlfriend, Couta Ho.  But far from maudlin, the story is told in that quintessential Aussie laconic voice, which masks the qualities that set this man apart.

How else could it be that the author can celebrate the Great Aussie Barbecue as a ‘crazed Baroque premonition of a Wurlitzer organ’ even as his character drowns?

Where the house was humble, the barbecue was magnificent, a giant edifice of brick, broken glass, and beer cans set in concrete and terracotta piping, with terrazzo slabs for meat and salads and drinks and whatever else needed somewhere to rest.  It stood three metres high and at least as long.  At its centre was a wood-fired grill, but the barbecue encompassed many more functions than that of simply grilling meat, encompassed functions of  a diverse culinary, spiritual and historical nature. (p240)

Elsewhere we see the beauty and cruelty of this iconic river as never before.  Aljaz and his fellow guide ‘Cockroach’ privately pour scorn on the ‘punters’ who come to experience the Franklin as a holiday ‘rush’ , shielding them from most of the heavy labour of portage and the risks inherent in the trip, until the moment of crisis arrives.  This mighty river forces those who visit to confront its reality.  As Flanagan says in the Afterword interview:

There’s a modern sort of mythology …that the wilderness is a comforting and pleasant place to be, as though it’s all ambient music…at one with nature.  I think the good thing about the natural world is that it forces us to face up to those things within ourselves that aren’t always that comforting or pleasant, it forces us to face up to our own fears and insecurities and inadequacies.

I have read Flanagan’s body of work backwards.  I discovered his writing with Gould’s Book of Fish, which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and then went on to read The Sound of One Hand Clapping.  (Of the execrable Unknown Terrorist I shall say nothing except that I suspect that Flanagan was so angst-ridden about the Howard government’s response to 9/11 that he thought he could reach an indifferent public by writing the kind of book they might understand.) Death of a River Guide is, I think, his best work, but I have Wanting on my TBR.  It has been highly praised and I’m looking forward to reading it – but not yet.  It is a mistake to rush into another book by the same author too quickly, like eating too much chocolate.  I want to savour the brilliance of Death of a River Guide for a little longer….

PS 6.4.09 I haven’t done justice to this marvellous book with this review.  I want to write more, quoting some of the breath-taking events that kept me reading this book well into the night.  But it was precisely those parts of the book that (apart from the fact that they are spoilers) that deserve to be read in context.

PS 2.5.09 I read Wanting, loved it, and wanted it to win the Miles Franklin 09.  Here’s my review.

Author: Richard Flanagan
Title: Death of a River Guide
Publisher: Macmillan 1997, first published in paperback by McPhee Gribble, 1994
ISBN: 0732908965
Source: Personal copy

Update 30/1/17: I discovered when I edited this post to enlarge the cover image that I have mixed up the ISBN, the publisher and the date of the edition with Flanagan’s The Sound of One Hand Clapping, so it’s possible that the page numbers I’ve quoted are wrong.  I can’t correct it because I have discovered *wail* that my first hardback edition of Flanagan’s debut novel  is missing from my collection.  The cover image that I’ve used here was from the 1st American edition that Trove tells me was published by Grove Press in 1994, but all I can find online is their reissue from 2001 which has ISBN 10: 0802116825 and ISBN 13: 9780802116826.  Unless my book one day turns up, or I shell out for a replacement, I’ll have to leave this as it is.


  1. […] Death of a River Guide (1994) by Richard Flanagan (Australia) […]


  2. […] (I can’t resist noting here that our own Richard Flanagan drew on The Wasteland back in 1997 when he used death by drowning as a catalyst for exploring the past, in Death of a River Guide). […]


  3. […] to make me think the sailor was going to drown.  (It reminded me of Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide where Aljaz Cosino is a river guide, trapped in The Cauldron on the Franklin River as the water […]


  4. […] prizes including the Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Flanagan is the author of Death of a River Guide (1994); The Sound of one Hand Clapping (1997); Gould’s Book of Fish (2001); The Unknown […]


  5. […] novel where a character is facing imminent death is Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan.  Aljaz Cosino is a river guide in the Tasmanian wilderness, trapped in The […]


  6. […] writing that I can still remember it now.  It puts me in mind of Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide in the way that it captures a moment that none of us would ever want to […]


  7. […] a week or so ago but I won’t be writing a review. I don’t rate Flanagan as Lisa does (here) and I’ve already criticised him enough […]


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