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Richard Flanagan: Death of a River Guide

Another flashback-just-before-I-die novel and another Australian-trying-to-get-in-touch-with-the-history-of-his-country novel, with the difference that we see Aljaz (Ali) as he is drowning, during which time he manages to not only cover the history of his family back to a couple of generations previously but also has a go, at least in part, at one or two key elements in the history of his country (particularly the convict issue and the aboriginal issue). This does not detract (too much) from the novel which is a very fine one as we follow the story of Aljaz, a dark-skinned (his mother was from Trieste) loner and a once and current river guide, who never got over the death of his two month old daughter and does not quite fit in with the world around him.

We follow, in bits and pieces, not only his own story but the story of his ancestors, particularly his father and mother and the convict Ned Quade, as well as his own travails at school (because of his dark skin), his love affairs, particularly with Couta Ho, by whom he has a daughter who dies at the age of two months and, finally, the fated and flawed final journey led by himself and Cockroach. This journey has already resulted in the death of one of the passengers before Aljaz’s accident and has had a series of minor problems. We know about Aljaz’s drowning from the beginning but, even if we had not, it would have been fairly predictable. However, despite the not very convincing narrative-while-drowning approach, Flanagan tells a good tale, not only about Aljaz and his family and their loves, wanderings and pain but also about Australia or, more particularly, Tasmania.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by McPhee Gribble