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Richard Flanagan's fourth novel is set in his native Tasmania, and returns to the troubled early history of the colony in the mid 19th century. The novel uses the parallel lives of governor and polar explorer John Franklin, Charles Dickens and Aboriginal girl, Mathinna to explore what happens when the ideals of the Age of Reason come crashing up against something more instinctive and basic--emotion, desire, instinct or 'wanting'. It also tells the sad tale of the death of the Tasmanian Aborigines under the 'protection' of the colonial administration. Flanagan treads a fine line. He doesn't imply that the British were all cruel, or that the Aborigines were entirely victims or 'noble savages'. There is a spectrum of perspectives, from the brutal to the misguided--and even the supportive. It must be difficult to write a novel like this without judging, excusing or idealising. The Tasmanian parts are much more successful than the Dickens material, and there is a lot of 'telling'. Nevertheless, Wanting will probably stir up conversation on both sides of the Aboriginal history debate, and it confirms Richard Flanagan's status as one of our finest literary novelists. (See interview, page 43.) Lachlan Jobbins is a freelance writer, book reviewer and ex-bookseller. He is currently working at the NSW Writers' Centre

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