Death of River Guide, the debut novel by the Tasmanian
writer Richard Flanagan
was first published in 1994, becoming a best seller in Australia and winning the Australian National Fiction Award. The book describes the life of river guide Aljaz Cosini
, through the visions Aljaz experiences of both his past life and his ancestors as he drowns at the bottom of a waterfall on the Franklin river
Through this we learn about the history of Tasmania, through the lives of many characters including, Aljaz's father Harry, Harry's grandmother Aunt Bessie, Aljaz'a ex-lover Couta Ho, going all the way back to the convict Ned Quade. Through these stories the effects of the white settlers arrival on the natural state of Tasmania is revealed, and the beliefs of the native aboriginals explained.
There is a great sadness throughout these tales of lives wasted and opportunities thrown away, and the white-washing of the colony's past. The tale is anchored by Aljaz as we are continually dragged back to witness his helpless lucid state of mind as he waits to drown, before another vision of the past overwhelms his vision. We hear Aljaz's fears, the onset of middle-age and the loss of youth, the death of his infant daughter which led him to an itinerant lifestyle around Australia and his return to Tasmania after his father's death, and the offer of one last job as a guide for a pack of tourists rafting down the Franklin river.
The book is beautifully moving, Flanagan has succeeded in creating successive generations of lively memorable characters, allowing the links between each of them to be slowly drawn as Aljaz is gradually shown the truth of both his ancestry and the birth of the modern Tasmania and the reality of nature that is still embedded in each one of us. The language reflects the changing tongue used by Tasmanians, and incorporating the idioms of each wave of immigrants, from the convicts of the nineteenth century, the Chinese and other peoples drawn by the short-lived gold rush, and the arrival of central Europeans in the aftermath of the devastation of World War 2.
Flangan's later novels, The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Gould's Book of Fish are better known outside Australia then Death..., since the marketing push of successive excellent novels has grown around this talented writer. If you've come across either of the above titles, then Death.. is more of the same, containing some of the threads that were fully fleshed out in his later work. If you're new to Flanagan then you do owe it to yourself to read him, you won't be disappointed.