"Wanting" is a smaller novel than "Gould's Book of Fish," Flanagan's masterpiece inspired by Tasmanian history, but its geographical scope is broader as it repeatedly jumps far from that mysterious island to events in England and even the Arctic. In each of these diverse but oddly related settings, Flanagan charts the wreckage done by people convinced that repressing their desires -- and others' -- is the key to civilization.
The book begins on Flinders Island, where Tasmania's aborigines have been forcibly resettled, with disastrous results. Inexplicably -- to those in charge -- these native people have not welcomed the invaders as liberators but have resisted all the civilizing improvements pressed upon them, which include a host of infectious diseases that are finishing off what a program of genocide began. As usual, Flanagan is brilliant at re-creating this "weird land predating time, with its vulgar rainbow colours, its vile, huge forests and bizarre animals that seemed to have been lost since Adam's exile." Everything here is simultaneously fecund and rotting, such as "a small meadow glistening with so many wet spiders' webs that it seemed veiled in a sticky gossamer."
But the people determined to settle this primeval land live in a state of denial, convinced of their immunity from moral judgment. During a highly staged visit from the mainland, Lt. Gov. Franklin and his strong-willed wife, Lady Jane, take a liking to an orphaned 7-year-old girl and decide to use her in their own Pygmalion experiment. "If we shine the Divine light on lost souls," Sir John announces, "then they can be no less than we. But first they must be taken out of the darkness and its barbarous influence."
The bitter irony here is pretty safe nowadays, efforts to bring the light of civilization to the darker people of the world having gone somewhat out of style (see: Operation Iraqi Freedom). But what keeps the novel's satire from sounding shrill is Flanagan's sensitivity to the conflicted conscience of Lady Jane and others involved in this "rigid programme of improvement." Flanagan portrays her as a woman of ferocious determination and relentless loneliness, a figure in many ways more interesting than her famous husband, who "gave no more appearance of any active intelligence than a well-tended pumpkin." Terrified of feelings she can't bear to acknowledge, she squelches every atom of affection, with ruinous results for little Mathinna.
This is a captivating tale of cruelty and disappointment, but "Wanting" periodically flashes forward to another equally engaging story in England, a jungle of a different kind, brought to life with the same lurid and startling detail. Lady Jane, now widowed, has dedicated her life to defending her late husband's reputation from reports that he and his crew failed to discover the Northwest Passage and resorted to cannibalism before expiring in a manner unbecoming to British gentlemen. Determined to raise her husband above such ignoble rumors, Lady Jane enlists the help of the age's most popular writer, Charles Dickens, who not only defends Franklin's incorruptible British spirit but goes on to write and star in a sensationally popular play about the expedition!