Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 4, 2020

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, by Richard Flanagan

Orange-bellied parrot (Wikipedia)

This beautiful little bird is the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot and it has a surprising role to play in the resolution of Richard Flanagan’s magnificent new novel.  I place it here because its plight is one of the catalysts for the book.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is Flanagan’s eighth novel, and it may very well be his best ever.  Some of it is confronting, but there’s good reason for it to be, and as Davy suggests when he’s pondering the predictability of stories, it’s ok that there are things that are just entertainment but if they don’t mean anything, that’s not great.

Shouldn’t stories work towards something that we can’t get anywhere else? he said.  It wouldn’t be enough, sure.  But maybe it would be something. (p.144)

In this novel Flanagan does indeed work towards something that we can’t get anywhere else.  Sure, there are sideswipes at the banks impoverishing hard-working self-funded retirees and at politicians who fail the people, but there are two issues of much greater significance that Flanagan deals with, united under the umbrella that we’re just not paying attention.  (You might remember that ‘paying attention’ was the theme of this year’s superb Melbourne Writers’ Festival too).  The novel begins with the extraordinary image of Anna’s vanished finger, soon to be followed by a vanished knee.  There’s no accident, no pain, no blood, just a quiet disappearance that other people don’t even notice.  They really don’t notice.

It’s a metaphor, of course.  It’s to draw our attention to the way we just don’t notice the way our world is becoming compromised beyond repair.  We just don’t notice the quiet extinction of unique species, and most of us are too distracted to notice the slowly advancing catastrophe of our over-heating planet.  Flanagan is merciless in showing how our preoccupation with trivia blinded us to the inexorable future — until last summer, when the mercury soared and Australia burned and our cities were swathed in smoke and we knew that the burned wildlife were the pitiful remnants of just the ones that we could still see.   All over Australia there are people who will read Flanagan’s novel remembering the horror and the fear and the sense of doom.  Words like apocalypse were tossed around by journalists, but we were living it, and now, as summer approaches, many of us are dreading it instead of happily anticipating the joy of the beautiful Australian summers that we grew up with.  This novel forces us to think about last summer and how it’s coming for us again.

This devastating world is the background for a more intimate story… about an issue much closer to home for those who have elderly parents.  Anna’s ageing mother is dying, and her children will not let her die.  Anyone who’s been through this time in a parent’s life knows that it’s a delicate situation: Anna’s brother Tommy has accepted the inevitability of her death, but her other brother Terzo is determined that everything that can be done, will be done, with no expense or effort spared.  And because he is a bombastic venture capitalist with influential friends, and because he bullies Anna into siding with him, and because the hospital is afraid he will go to the media and sue, Francie undergoes a succession of unwarranted medical interventions that will make any empathetic reader weep.

Flanagan is too wise a novelist to be simplistic about this.  There is a back story about these three siblings who used to be four, and there are reasons for Anna’s heartlessness in refusing to accede to her mother’s wish to be free from pain.  Flanagan teases out how the ‘failure’ who stayed in Tasmania had the burden of Francie’s care, and how the successful siblings interstate hate him because his gentle kindness makes them feel guilty.   It is Anna’s third person limited perspective that we have, and we see her confusion about her life and the choices she made, and we see the complexity of her relationship with her mother and brothers.  She has a son too, a remnant of a failed marriage, and she made compromises as a single mother that have damaged their relationship.  Anyone who experiences the toxic unavailability of a loved one obsessed by screens will recognise the phenomenon.

Anna retreats into social media to insulate herself from a life she can’t control.  Endlessly scrolling, clicking, following, liking — these words running together on the page to illustrate her seamless preoccupations — she hides in the ladies’ room pretending to deal with work emails.  The limits of technology are cruelly evident when a series of strokes leaves poor Francie non-verbal and she slowly, painfully, jabs out a message for her daughter:

… Anna persisted, with patience and a certain bloody-mindedness, forcing her mother back to using the board every moment she was awake, determined that her mother once more communicate.  The board frustrated Francie, who repeatedly pointed to the same letters.


Anna asked her mother if she meant tell me go? But Francie’s face made no movement.  Her finger shuddered above the letter board, as once again she began jabbing her finger here, here, and here, as Anna sounded each letter out, before pronouncing the group of letters as a possible word.

L—e—t, she said. Let? she asked.

And Francie, Anna thought, seemed to nod.  Again Francie’s finger jolted and hovered, body and mind seeking to coordinate that most difficult task.

M—e, she said.  Let me? she asked.

And Francie again seemed to nod, and again began shuddering and jabbing.

G—o, she said.  Let me go? she asked.

Her mother’s hand dropped.

Let me go? she asked.  Is that what you’re asking me?

One side of Francie’s partly palsied face flickered, a strange jumpy thing as if a stitch in her lips were being pulled tight and then loosened off, then pulled tight again.

Where, Francie? asked Anna.

And when her mother made no reply, she asked again, Let you go where, Francie?  Where do you want to go? (p.186)

Flanagan doesn’t spare his readers the cruelty of that obtuse question… Anna is oblivious to the monster she has become.

Everyone else is oblivious too.

No one took any notice.  No one looked up. All were staring at their phones.  It was as though the signal was weak but if they could just find the hole in the sky where one bar might be had everything would be okay, as if just out there, about to be delivered, was the message they were all waiting for.

For so long they had been searching, liking, friending and commenting, emojiing and cancelling, unfriending and swiping and scrolling again, thinking they were not more than writing and rewriting their own worlds, while all the time—sensation by sensation, emotion by emotion, thought by thought, fear on fear, untruth on untruth, feeling by feeling—they were themselves being slowly rewritten into a wholly new kind of human being.  How could they have known that they were being erased from the beginning? (p.224)

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams might sound grim, and some of it is indeed bleak, but there are still elements to make a reader smile.  A man with a face so barren of feature it put Anna in mind of a hotel card.  Anna’s lover Meg falls asleep making noises halfway between a cow masticating and a growling dog on Mogadon. Even Francie’s hallucinations from her cocktail of drugs: the man in the ward opposite who kept ferrets hidden in his pyjama trousers.  And Anna denying her son Guy’s problems to herself: it was depression the times toxic masculinity the housing market millennial despair screens solar spots…

Many thanks to Readings Bookstore for getting this book to me so promptly.  It’s been a privilege to read it.

PS There’s a fine interview with Flanagan at the Guardian. 

Author: Richard Flanagan
Title: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams
Publisher: Knopf (Penguin Random House Australia, 2020
Jacket and case design by Adam Laszczuk
ISBN: 9781760899943, hbk., first edition, 285 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $32.99

Available from Fishpond: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams or to support your local economy, from your favourite bricks and mortar indie bookshop.
Image credit: Orange-bellied Parrot (Neophema chrysogaster) male, Melaleuca, Southwest Conservation Area, Tasmania, Australia. By JJ Harrison ( – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


  1. I downloaded the audible copy of this from our library to Borrow Box and began listening to it but the narrator yells so much when emphasising parts of the book I can’t listen to it. I wonder if I’ll read this. Yes I know it will be a brilliant book but I am already immersed in so many of the messages he reads do I want to read something I’ll find really upsetting. I write so many letters to politicians and the newspaper editor about these issues. Will it entertain me to read it? Or only make me angrier? Richard Flanagan is signing copies of this book next weekend at the Hobart Town Hall. Our independent bookstore, Fullers is selling tickets to hear the online interview between him and Jennifer Byrne. If you are interested in paying $15.00 for a ticket I can send you their link. I think it will be online for another week or so. Interesting review. This book will get a great deal of attention I’m sure.


    • Who is the narrator? My search says it’s Essie Davis… not someone renowned for subtlety IMO, not if that silly Phryne Fisher series is anything to go by. Anyway, that’s a shame if it makes it hard to listen to…
      Will it make you angry? It might comfort you to find an author on the same side, who cares as much as you do, and has used the power of his pen to speak up about it. Thinking back to that book I read about ‘How to Talk About Climate Change in Ways that Make a Difference’, maybe talking about this book with people who might still need convincing, might be a way into a persuasive conversation with them, one that doesn’t make them feel hostile or threatened because it’s a book, and people like to hear about books that are in the zeitgeist, even they don’t read books much or at all.


  2. I’m looking forward to reading this more than ever now thanks to your review. My copy from Readings is en route and should arrive this week. I bought the ticket Travellin Penguin mentions above (which included the book, hence mine is coming from Melbourne) and found it completely fascinating. He’s such a deep thinker and such a considered speaker, I really enjoyed listening to him talk so eloquently about this book and what he was trying to achieve with the story.


    • It’s really hard not to gush… but my rating at Goodreads speaks for itself. I very rarely give 5 stars to anything, but this book is just magnificent. Oops, I think I said that already…

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Sounds marvellous, though I’m not sure I’m strong enough to engage with those issues right now, especially the ageing parent thing… :(


    • I think it could be a bit close to the bone for some.
      But if reading it makes even only a few “get around to” making provision for their own demise, with an advanced care directive that specifies what treatments are acceptable, that would be a very good thing. In the current situation, I wonder how many people have had the conversation about whether they’d want to be put on a ventilator or not. The answer is easy for young and healthy people, but for older people, and people with complex health issues? It isn’t just a case of being on it and then everything’s ok, there’s months of rehab and ill health afterwards and possible long term damage. I would not want that if I were in my late 80s.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, me neither. If I get to that state I just want to go (and my mother has told me just the same thing).

        Liked by 1 person

        • Make sure you have it in writing and witnessed, because the medical system will override if you don’t, especially if you have family that might interfere, that is, if the hospital thinks they might interfere.


          • Well, for mum I have PofA which gives me the right to make medical decisions for her. For me, I think I will put something in writing….


            • Yes, I finally made myself do it a while ago, and it’s hard, but it’s a good thing to do.

              Liked by 1 person

  4. ‘Let me go.’ How heartbreaking and how oblivious that daughter is. Will definitely read this one. Thanks for the review!


  5. I am having the converse problem of young people insisting that the elderly should sacrifice themselves for the sake of the economy – a discussion that has come about due to C-19 of course. I try to point out to them that such an attitude is the start of an inevitable slippery slope…

    I love Flanagan’s essays but rarely his novels… I don’t know why – as an essayist he is superb. I will take a look – but I’m less interested in self-funded retirees than I am in the unemployed, pensioners, or those in need of affordable housing. Thanks for the review Lisa.

    I totally agree about summer – the summers of much of my life I remember as glorious – mornings at the beach, afternoons spent reading – now summer is a season I dread. I used to love the jacarandas blooming in Sydney because it meant summer was on the way – now the prospect of another summer horrifies me! How incredibly sad that is.


    • You mean, young people have actually said that to you?
      I see in the media other people talking about how they’re saying it, but I thought it was a beat-up fostered by our discord-loving media.

      Don’t forget that some ‘self-funded’ retirees are widows surviving on their husband’s super (not indexed for cost-of-living increases) and some of them are the ones that went to the bank for advice and were sold a product that meant they lost all that super and had to sell their modest houses and now they are renting. They are very much in need of affordable housing, older women are the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia.


      • I have often mentioned the problem of homelessness amongst older women in my comments Lisa, it’s a disgrace that our country cares so little about this utterly avoidable situation.

        Yes I have had several young people tell me they should not suffer lock downs for the sake of old people “who are going to die soon anyway”. Never mind dying of covid is a terrible way to die, you need medical care – and the impact on developing nations, the poor, people of colour… and the ethics of a society which decides one portion of the population is expendable. Where does it end if we start doing that?


        • I am gobsmacked… honestly, even if young people think that, I can’t imagine how rude and tactless they’d have to be to say so directly to somebody older!

          Liked by 1 person

          • There was a young economist on Q&A early in the pandemic who implied some of this as I recollect – so not just the media, Lisa, but “thinkers” out there.


            • I never watch Q&A anymore. It’s a sham.


              • I rather expected that, Lisa, which is why I shared this! We usually check it out but don’t watch it all. There were a couple of very good ones this year (mostly one without pollies because those ones you get too much party line!) It’s moving to Thursday prime-time in 2021!


                • I liked the format of the old Monday Conference. An issue was up for discussion, and there were two, sometimes three experts on whatever it was. We learned about the complexities of the issue and why it was important.
                  But now? I do not want to listen to the uninformed opinions of people who whose only expertise is that they have opinions. Since we rarely have the TV on anyway, the date of its broadcast doesn’t matter to us…


                • Yes, it was good. But, through the COVID year, the ABC has had quite a few people with expertise on – epidemiologists, for example, but also people working in various sectors like disability, who have had something to contribute. But, I agree that sometimes you do wonder what the person’s expertise is in the area being discussed. I usually do my blog reading, my secretary of the Friends membership work, etc, while TV is on, and just prick up my ears when something catches my attention.


                • The problem with Q&A and The Drum ticking all its diversity boxes, is that the person with expertise has equal weighting with the celebrity, song writer, actor, seventeen-year-old &c, and every minute of air time going to an opinion we could just as easily overhear at the pub or on a train or at the supermarket, is air time that — instead of being wasted — could have been used to give us more expert opinion that we don’t get to hear anywhere else. Every report we get on the news features some vox pop about C-19: and we have no way of knowing whether it’s representative or valid, it’s just there to convey the idea that the ABC is listening to us. I mean, you could write the script yourself for the murder in a quiet suburb when the neighbours tell us how lovely their neighbourhood is and how shocked they are because they were such a lovely couple &c. I mind, because I grew up with better than that, and I resent the trivialisation of news and current affairs.


                • Yes, fair enough. The Vox Pop stuff really makes me mad. Mr Gums and I wait for the “tight-knit” community, neighbourhood etc. It pretty much never fails. Then there’s the “that’s what [Australians, Victorians, New Zealanders, Americans, etc etc} are, we pull together in strife and yada yada yada”. And we are all supposed to feel like we are the only good, generous people.

                  Liked by 1 person

  6. Powerful themes – not comfortable to read for sure but important messages. If the pandemic has done one thing positive it’s to get people thinking about how they would want to be treated. I read Dear Life by Rachel Clarke (a palliative care specialist) earlier this year and she made a plea to people to set up end of life directives so that doctors and family find it easier to make key decisions.


    • Yes, and it’s very important to discuss it with your loved ones as well. Not easy, but very important.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Trying to broach this with my parents – as you say, very tricky


        • What used to drive me crazy was the flat refusal to discuss the possibility of needing to go into aged care. My approach was to suggest just doing the paperwork so that things could be managed if there was a crisis (waiting times then were about 18 months, it’s worse now) and having a look at places to choose which one if it became necessary, and my mother wouldn’t countenance it. It ended up all being much worse than it needed to be.


          • I’m hitting that “refusal” reaction too. My mother is more open to discussion but my father just completely rejects any suggestion that at 90 years old, he needs to get help with things like gardening, washing windows…


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