Death of a River Guide

The measure of a great novel is its resonance in the reader.  Sometimes the reader remembers and never forgets very specific details.  But when a sense of the whole story and the experience of reading that story endures, long after the book has been finished and put away on the shelf, long after more forgettable books have been read and replaced on those same shelves, that story has demonstrated its achievement:  to live on in the life and imagination of the reader, the only place where any story ever matters.


These ‘reviews’ grew out the habit of commenting upon what I read in my journals.  Until now all of the reviews that have been posted on my website have been shaped into the form of a review, with the hope that they would read smoothly.  But in the case of Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide I have decided to simply present the journal entries as I wrote them, since the one difficulty I had with the novel was, in the end, successfully and satisfactorily dealt with.

As far as Death of a River Guide goes there are bits that I like quite a lot, instances of real beauty in the prose, as when Flanagan describes Aljaz making love to Couta Ho on pages 100-101, or the beginning of the rainfall that will spell his doom:


Aljaz was woken by the hop hop of raindrops landing on his sleeping bag.  The sound hauled his mind up from the great depths where his dreaming took place and brought him to his senses to realise he had to get out of his sleeping bag.  The gentle rhythm of the drops was being swamped by the sound of a heavy downpour smashing on the rainforest canopy, pressing its intent upon the myrtles and the sassafrases, then permeating downwards, entering the forest branch by branch, leaf by leaf, until every branch and every leaf could be heard to move by the power of the rain.  Until the rain was cascading down on the forest floor and all the billions of raindrops and all the millions of leaves moving had become one deafening sound and one overwhelming purpose.


But I keep feeling and thinking that the trope—if you like, of the drowning man stuck in some kind of watery purgatory where he re-observes his entire life and that of all the people related to him, his most immediate ancestors, and with them, revisits the history of Tasmania, colonized as a British penal settlement at the beginning of the 19th century, with Sarah Island, in Macquarie Harbor, being regarded as “The Devil’s Island of the British Empire, the endpoint of the vast convict system, the remotest island of the remotest island of the remotest continent.”—is a strategy or tactic Flanagan must have decided upon and run with rather than something that emerged (though this might have happened as well) through the organic process of writing the story. 


This conceit, if you like, allows for a certain caprice in the narrative, and that may make it possible to blend and churn up all these stories as if they were being battered out of the mind of a man drowning beneath 10,000 liters of rushing water.  But Flanagan makes no effort to make the reader feel what it might be like to drown, though this could come later, and half way through the book I perceive no fictional sense to the structure and delivery of information, though I could be proved wrong by the time I’m finished reading the book.


As far as the content goes I think, sure, incidents like that of Aljaz’s dad Harry finding his father dead beneath the limb of a tree while out snaring wallabies, and several days after the man died, is potent narrative material (and well-handled), and the unexplained and sudden death of Aljaz’s two-month-old baby daughter Jemma is tragic.  And though the (originally hidden) convict past and the sense of being an ugly outsider might have contributed to making Aljaz the man he is, the only thing that really matters to me as a reader is that my guide through the narrative—the ever-drowning Aljaz—be credible and reliable and sensitive enough, as he is, to relate a story worth reading. 


But this is certainly not an achievement like that of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, despite the blurb.  Faulkner’s masterpiece was grounded in the stink, among other things, and the absurdity and danger of the adventure generated by the determination that the dead woman be buried far away from the place where she died.  And everything that happens along the way, fantastic as it might seem, is instead anything but fantasy.  The stories Flanagan pieces together to make the quilt work of Death of a River Guide are also grounded, and that is the novel’s strength.  But this core conceit—and I’m not sure what else to call it, although it does enable the telling of these disparate yet related stories—nonetheless requires of the reader a suspension of disbelief so severe, and so fantastic, that, although the reader may merely accept that the drowning man is seeing all of this as he drowns, it nonetheless snags at this reader’s mind, and takes something away from the rest of the accomplishments.


And finally I read some of the best parts of Death of a River Guide.  These pages—239-274—mark that inflection point in the narrative after which all that comes is denouement.  And so the text has been building to this point, building towards the death of Harry and the revelation—proffered by Maria Magdalena Svevo, in response to a mildly racist comment Aljaz makes—that he too is Aborigine.  I am a little confused by this, confused as to how she would know (was that in the text, somewhere, and I only failed to see it; I did pick up on Auntie Ellie’s Abo traces and her violent insistence otherwise, but when I read that I thought—maybe I was confused—that Auntie Ellie was no blood relation after all, and more like a woman who had accepted the role of nanny after Aljaz’s mother died).  But thematically it works as it suggests the whole country is not what it claims to be, that the convict and Abo blood runs through every vein, etc. 


There was some beautiful writing in these pages, something I have seen, sporadically, throughout the novel.  And it is in these pages that the trope of the drowning man who can see not only his own life pass before his eyes but the lives of many others, both family and other, the whole history really of Tasmania, complete with its cast of curious indigenous animals with even more curious names—the wallabies and she-oak skinks and goannas and so on—realizes its full potential.  By placing the death of his father at this point in the narrative, and adding to that the re-encounter with Couta Ho, Flanagan makes the whole of the novel successful in terms of this potential.  Everything we have been told and everything we have seen through the eyes of the drowning man comes to fruition in these pages, making the read worthwhile.


I finished Death of a River Guide last night.  Although the trope, if you can call it that, of a drowning man seeing visions of the men and women and children who peopled not only his life but that of his forefathers pays off, in a sense, and is the only—or right, perhaps—structural means of delivering this variety of generational and historical information simultaneously with a straight-line narrative of a journey down a wild river gone wrong, the reader often pays for this structural and almost thematic choice with numerous and seemingly untimely asides, producing, in me at least, an inconsonant reading experience. 


On the one hand much of the writing is strong and sure and true and moving and sometimes compelling too, but many of these historical or generational flashbacks so removed me from the thrust of this most exciting and interesting river-raft narrative that I was sometimes bored and frustrated as a reader.  Flanagan does bring it all together in the end, but even in the end there are these—to my mind and taste—almost unfortunate insertions (one of the best examples is the helicopter episode, on pages 316 to 318, so very near the end of the book; this is the tail-end of the “Black Pearl 1828” section, which provides, on the other hand, absolutely vital information).


It’s hard not to feel as if much of the structure of River Guide is capricious.  I can imagine a general outline taking shape, in the author’s mind, as he wrote the book, and the comingling of the various threads of story occurred to him.  How to interweave these, that would be the question.  And how to interweave them in such a manner that they could not be disentangled and separated.  The reliance upon a certain degree of magic realism—this novel does contain scenes of exotic talking animals boozing it up and telling stories and then, at the very end, flying away, blown by the wind—seems an obvious choice:


I see two tables of riotous drunken animals blow down through the gorge above all our heads, and as they tumble past way up high I feel the gale that is taking them begin to lift me, and I notice that the animals seem to be looking less and less like animals and more and more like people.  Then they are gone.  I see a piners’ punt laden with lost souls descending from the stormy skies, all beckoning towards me.

Photo by JJ Harrison ( – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,