Cover Image: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

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Member Reviews

All shook up…

Do you want to read a book where every sentence is intense? Then this might be it. Talk about rich—beautiful, lyrical stream-of-consciousness, every sentence counts. This is the epitome of literary fiction, a book you can sink your canines into, bite down hard, while you’re getting transported by the language. The book is poetic and is also full of social commentary that makes you ponder. I read a lot of sentences twice.

This story is set in Tasmania, where wildfires rage. The smoke is everywhere, animals are dying. It shook me up. There’s this eerie and intense vibe going on in the background. The story is about a woman named Anne, who with her two brothers, is tending to their hospitalized mother, who is losing her abilities. She is way past her expiration date and tells them she is ready to die. But oh no, the kids will have none of it. Well, actually, one of the sons would let her die but he gets outvoted by his sibs. They prolong her life as long as they can, hospital machines and procedures on overtime. Mom is being tortured and is at their mercy. And actually, they have no mercy. I had a really hard time watching the mother suffer so much; her physical decline is described in detail. It’s sickening how much energy the kids put into keeping her alive. It’s not that they are afraid of losing her because they feel all warm and fuzzy toward her; in fact, they’re the opposite—all austere and cold and don’t seem to even like her. It’s more like they don’t want to be in the state of grief that will happen once she’s dead. It’s all very selfish. (As other reviewers have exclaimed, make sure you have an advance directive!)

Meanwhile, parts of Anne are disappearing—first a finger, then a knee. After a while, the people around her lose body parts, too. I thought the disappearing acts would fascinate me, entertain me, but for some reason they didn’t. (Maybe this is because magical realism and I aren’t often buddies.) Yes, I know, it’s supposed to be symbolic of how middle-aged women feel invisible, blah blah blah, but it lacked umph. I do think it had the potential of working, but don’t ask me how.

The plot is not the main thing here, it’s the language and the commentary. If you do think about the plot, it’s damn depressing. A dying mother who is ready to check out but can’t. Kids who are torturers. A sad woman who is slowly disappearing. A wildfire that won’t give up. Horrible events and people everywhere.

Oh, let me add that there is psychological insight out the kazoo; it’s a great character study. I’m a sucker for psychology. I wasn’t a Psych minor for nothing; I ate up all the wisdom about the noggin and the feels. On the other hand, Anne wasn’t likeable, so I didn’t love spending all my time with her.

Okay, here’s the rub: My poor brain got tired toward the end. Often a sentence is one gigantic paragraph, and that made my head hurt. If I tried to hold my breath until I finished reading the sentence, I wouldn’t make it. The story demands a lot of brain power and mine would peter out, especially when long descriptions took over. Sometimes I just wanted to return to the plot. And give me a little more dialogue, will you? The story just got too dense, food for thought every half second. I went from dying to pick the book up to sort of wanting to be done with it. Even though the book was on the short side, I wanted it to be even shorter. So my rating fell from 8 stars to 3.5 stars, and I rounded up. 

It’s an amazing and profound book, though, one I think I’ll remember for a long time. The language carried me away—I mean, even the book title is beautiful. The big question is, did the book shake me up? Absolutely. And when that happens, you know you’ve got a good one.

Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy.
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In a way, not a lot happens in this book but we do get a lot of information about the main character & a peek at the climate of the future. I thought the ending was really well done. Definitely a must-read for fans of literary fiction.
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I’m judging the L.A. Times 2020 and 2021 fiction contest. It’d be generous to call what I’m doing upon my first cursory glance—reading. I also don’t take this task lightly. As a fellow writer and lover of words and books, I took this position—in hopes of being a good literary citizen. My heart aches for all the writers who have a debut at this time. What I can share now is the thing that held my attention and got this book from the perspective pile into the read further pile. 

I admit this is my first Flanagan. Stunning. 

“The world grew daily hotter and smokier and nightly noisier: more construction noise more insects disappearing, more road noise more fish stocks collapsing, more news noise more frogs and snakes dying out, more brexitrump climatecoal more more and more, more and more fucking tourists everywhere, even here in Tasmania ever here at the end of the world, well they were queueing at the top of Everest what could you expect?—more jackhammers more reversing trucks and falling and rising cherry pickers b-b-b-beeping, more tourists coaches clogging small streets more rolling suitcases click-clack-clacking in the street more Winnefuckingbagos more Airbnfuckingbs more locals sleeping in tents all around the city until even his dreams filled with a nightmare of noise movement growth that seemed to benefit no one and only grew things that left people unsettled unhappy that made people poorer; an even greater panic expressed as movement, a fear of stillness, tourism that was meant to save the island had become the very opposite, tourists even shat in the front yards of locals what the fuck was that saying?”

This is what you’d call a writers writer. He had me at brexitrump climatecoal. Or the italicized onomatopoeias or the Winnefuckingbagos or the Airfuckingbnbs. Definitely the run on. Love.
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4.75: Brilliant, irate, unsettling, traumatic, painfully honest. This is a hugely, gasp-inducingly ambitious novel, especially for such a short one, taking enormous intellectual and artistic risks. Flanagan collapses several braided narratives, working at discordant modes and registers, continually invading his readers' comfort zones to shatter our complacency about the slow-moving apocalypse of the Anthropocene. 

First, this begins as a hyper-realistic and viscerally painful medical narrative of the octogenarian Francie's protracted physical decline and hospitalization, and a litany of entirely unnecessarily invasive medical procedures, as perceived by Anna, her narcissistic and successful architect daughter.  The second layer is a claustrophobic family drama of tensions between Anna and her surviving siblings-- the sociopathic hedge-fund manager Terzo and the middle-aged slacker/artist Tommy-- and the sheer selfishness and horror of their choice to prolong their mother's life far beyond the limits of what compassion, or even basic humanity, would dictate. Third, this becomes an absurdist allegory, as characters' random body parts (fingers, knees, eyes) begin to inexplicably vanish as if Photoshopped, but nobody wants to make a big deal about it, in a collective denial of the blindingly obvious, sustained by the consensual delusions of social media addiction. The fourth framing narrative consists of naturalistic descriptions of the threatened ecosystems of forests and oceans, and migrating near-extinct birds: this reminds us of the life-sustaining powers of a planet that is, ultimately, the only real world that could transcend human myopia.

An omniscient authorial voice hovers over the action, harshly judging the characters' pathologies and transgressions, but it's never preachy or heavy-handed or too on-the-nose. Flanagan is clever and artful enough to avoid the most obvious parallels between a dying woman's body systems and the ecological crisis of Australian bush fires, leaving these connections oblique and elusive. This approaches the universal through the very specific, leaving me with more disturbing questions about how parents fail their young children, and adult children fail their elderly parents. 

<i>Many thanks to Netgalley and Knopf Doubleday for providing a free ARC in return for an honest review.</i>
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The Living Sea of Waking Dreams has so much going on in it — sibling drama, end of life care, climate change, Millennial ennui, the sinkhole of social media, sexual abuse, suicide, sexism, classism, and an interrogation into what makes for a well-lived life — and I wanted to love this when I was just a few issues deep, but ultimately, Richard Flanagan just threw too much against the wall for me; and although I think that in subject and format Flanagan captures something true and compelling about modern life, I ended up feeling more overwhelmed than connected. This could win awards but failed to move me; three and a half stars, rounded up for technique and relevance.
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This has to be one of the stranger books I have read in a while, which makes it extremely unique and I'm still not quite sure what to make of it.

The writing is very peculiar, yet beautiful and very poetic. There are so many questions and it's also very depressing, too depressing for me.

Thank you Netgalley and the publisher for the eARC. All opinions are my own.
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A breathtaking meditation on climate destruction, grief, and trauma. These themes are interwoven in a narrative told by Anna, a middle-aged woman facing the imminent death of her mother. While her native land of Tasmania is consumed by brush fires and natural disasters, Anna takes a perverse comfort in observing from afar. Although she seeks to avoid responsibility in her life, the artifacts of her brother's suicide as well as her absence as a mother and daughter are ever-present. This tension between reality and her self-soothing lies causes Anna's body to disappear one body part at a time. She expresses horror at first but, as in many other aspects of her life, grows numb to the unnaturalness.

What makes Flanagan's prose so compelling is that it is bare and unflinching in the face of trauma. It neither romanticizes nor downplays the character's suffering; in this way it lays bare the contradictions that they must clutch onto in order to stay afloat. His use of magical realism is subtle and it slowly lulls the reader into a sense of false normalcy. This is perhaps the root of Flanagan's brilliance: he makes the reader complicit in the same lies that cause the characters' demise. To look away from the horror is to admit weakness; to keep staring at it is to risk growing numb to its effects.

I feel fortunate to have felt the lessons of this book so deeply. It is easy to admonish people for their ignorance, but to make them feel the personal losses takes a great amount of sensitivity.
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Interesting fantastical novel.  It’s really hard to explain this book because it combines a lot of odd ideas that somehow make an amazing story.  I recommend. I enjoyed it in the figurative language is beautiful.
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