Cover Image: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

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Member Reviews

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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