Richard Flanagan’s novel The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (Knopf 2020) is about many things – love, loss, death, extinction – and is at times bizarre and verges on a ‘stream of consciousness’ style, but it also fits neatly into the cli-fi genre. The tale is a common one of a family rallying around their dying matriarch. Set in Tasmania with two of the three siblings resident in Australia, it is the background in which the tale is set, from the Tasmanian rainforest fires of 2016 to the black summer or 2019/20, that gives it away as a piece of cli-fi. Flanagan does not stint with many passages such as those following.
“There was something perversely comforting in the mounting horror the sixth extinction rising oceans, the Antarctic just having had its hottest day ever…The forecast for Hobart was 41 degrees, it was Tasmania or God’s sake, the Switzerland of the south, please, no one had ever seen weather like it, it kept on and on even now it was spring or was it autumn or still winter? She thought of the fire smoke smog that lay over Sydney smearing morning into midday into afternoon…” (p.94)
“She would scroll the country would burn she would watch a video shot by firefighters inside a fire truck swallowed by fire to escape tunnelling through a phone screen of pure flame, flame moving like water giant rolling and breaking waves of fire, firefighters dead, a politician in board shorts holidaying in Hawaii, arms around people tossing a shaka, hanging loose. (p.98)
“Incinerated kangaroos in foetal clutches of fencing wire charred koalas burnt bloated cattle on their backs, legs in the air, growing out of dried river beds. She scrolled past medieval tableaux of muted humanity on beaches in the ochre wash of an inferno. Caravaggio Brueghel Bosch it seems to have happened a very long time ago it’s happening today is it the terracotta that lights everything now? You ask people when the fire hit, someone says somewhere, but they can’t remember…” (p.100)
“Dense fire smoke ultra-fine PM2.5 particles, small enough to damage lungs and bloodstream smothering Sydney, anything over 200 hazardous, levels at 2200” (p.102) and similar sentences are liberally sprinkled throughout the book. In the closing pages Flanagan looks at the personal extinction of the matriarch, Francie, and the threatened extinction of the orange bellied parrot at Port Davey in Tasmania’s south-west and then offers hope in the ‘power of woman’.
*copy in the East Gippsland Shire Library