The World's Literature: Latin America discussion

Death of a River Guide
This topic is about Death of a River Guide
28 views
Asia and Down Under 2015 > Australia: "Death of a River Guide" by Richard Flanagan

Comments Showing 1-50 of 52 (52 new)    post a comment »
« previous 1

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Death of a River Guide

Story takes the reader to Tasmania. According to Wikipedia, the name refers to a large island and a few hundred small islands. Flanagan's first novel after several works of nonfiction is probably familiar to readers. A NYTimes critical review opines on the pros and cons of it.

Aljaz's retelling his life admits that his hallucinations underwater may alter the facts. I like that...a fictional character's memoir in which the acceptable meaning of "truth" becomes larger: "They may not be the facts of newspapers, but they are truths nevertheless...I have been granted visions--grand, great, wild, sweeping visions. My mind rattles with them as they are born to me."


message 2: by Jayme (last edited Jan 25, 2015 10:40AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jayme I just finished reading this book and have become a new fan of Flanagan. The following quote is what won me over. Context of the quote is that Harry is looking at a picture of his mother when she was eight.

"Harry would sometimes get this photograph down, run his fingers over it and whisper some of his secrets to its sepia image, and wonder what it was that connected this happy child with his unhappy mother, and what it was that had separated them."

Simply heart wrenching.


message 3: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue | 306 comments I've begun the book and was caught by Aljaz's apparent ecstatic thought that he has been granted visions.


message 4: by Betty (last edited Jan 26, 2015 12:54PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Jayme wrote: "..."Harry would sometimes get this photograph down, run his fingers over it and whisper some of his secrets to its sepia image, and wonder what it was that connected this happy child with his unhappy mother, and what it was that had separated them.""

I like the way the author leads into your quotation from chapter-3 by Aljaz's father Harry,
"...an old photograph...yellowed, acid-blotched and silverfish-chewed, had curled so much that it...seemed only to want to lie down and curl in upon itself, and the gentlest of draughts would knock it over."
It echoes what happened to Harry's adult mother--her zest for life a point of lightness indiscernible now from her withered image were the photograph taken in her thirties. Harry wishes to understand how the two images are of one person, but maybe Aljaz could now with his visionary knowledge.

Elsewhere in the story, the author writes descriptively and lengthily about moments, considering the book occurs over several minutes but its narrative memoir goes back in time to Aljaz's great-great-grandfather, at least. I also like the device Aljaz uses, being gifted with an omniscient vision of history in which ordinary circumstances would not have permitted him to see in so many psychological and environmental details.

What about this book's themes? Living, dying, the comprehension of those as spectator. And the river imbues them both.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Sue wrote: "I've begun the book and was caught by Aljaz's apparent ecstatic thought that he has been granted visions."

Yes, the end of paragraph 1 in chapter 4 says that "...I see not the surface reality but what really took place, stripped of all its confusing superficial detail...what I see now ...is me...the river is shoving my mind and heart about, pushing my body, forcing open parts that I thought closed forever." Later in the same chapter, his visionary role makes him an observer of his young self, i.e., he sits beside his young self (Aljaz) on the sandy riverside.


Lagullande | 11 comments I just started reading this yesterday and am kind of wishing I hadn't. We have a trip planned to Peru this summer, which includes a day white-water rafting. As I am someone who gets seasick in the bath, I was already wondering why I agreed to it, and the first couple of chapters haven't helped. Anyway, I will carry on with the book and hope that I get something else out of it, in addition to blind panic!


message 7: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue | 306 comments Lagullande wrote: "I just started reading this yesterday and am kind of wishing I hadn't. We have a trip planned to Peru this summer, which includes a day white-water rafting. As I am someone who gets seasick in the ..."

Good luck with the reading and the trip, Lagullande. I'm one of those who would opt to stay on the side lines while others did the white-water rafting, but I know many who absolutely love it.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Lagullande wrote: "I just started reading this yesterday and am kind of wishing I hadn't. We have a trip planned to Peru this summer, which includes a day white-water rafting ..."

Lucky you for touring Peru. I can sympathize with you about wild Nature, as I shy away from extreme sports. A walk in the woods is enough for me. Reading this debut novel might be to the good in preparing you, as you mention above. Besides the vehicle of the rafting expedition, the story is about the real and metaphorical flow of rivers--the Franklin's waters, the genealogical time and lifelong narratives of Aljaz's ancestors, and the history of Tasmania during the years of his ancestors (1830's-1990s) and its effect/affect on those people. Those are told as stories revealed by the river waters to Aljaz's consciousness. Wonderful opportunity for you and for building memories.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Sue wrote: "...I'm one of those who would opt to stay on the side lines while others did the white-water rafting, but I know many who absolutely love it. "

Adventurous people might attempt it, and the sport's effect is thrilling with roller-coaster surprises :)


Lagullande | 11 comments Asma wrote: "Lagullande wrote: "I just started reading this yesterday and am kind of wishing I hadn't. We have a trip planned to Peru this summer, which includes a day white-water rafting ..."

Thank you, Asma, I feel greatly encouraged by your comments. Ironically, we were supposed to try white-water rafting in Tasmania 20 years ago.....but there was a drought so the water levels were too low. Just like at the beginning of Aljaz's trip.

I have now reached the part where Aljaz starts to describe his visions, and the book is definitely grabbing me. Thank you for scheduling it.


message 11: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue | 306 comments The writing really is excellent and I'm glad to be participating in the Flannagan challenge.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Lagullande wrote: "...I have now reached the part where Aljaz starts to describe his visions..."

Quite unbelievably good for a debut novel. Reviews have compared the author to Faulkner and have noted the "magical realism" in it. On one hand, there's a gravity to the telling as well as humor and fabulosity. What makes the seriousness is the context of river, its deep gorges, and of its uncertain movements sensitive to weather. On another hand, there's a connection to stories whose fabulous characters are ancestors, animals,...


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Sue wrote: "The writing really is excellent and I'm glad to be participating in the Flannagan challenge."

Me, too, Sue. Without this reading-one-author challenge, I would be missing this author's remarkable, enriching tales.


message 14: by Betty (last edited Feb 02, 2015 06:12AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments The "memory of loss" becomes evident towards the novel's end. The loss of what? There's lush, paradisical Tasmania before European colonization with its exploitation of natural resources, of native peoples and of transported convicts in the early nineteenth century when Tasmania was known as Van Diemen's Land. There's the loss of authenticity in not recognizing the real genealogies, the mixed heritage of Tasmania's inhabitants, pretending to free-white-settler forebears. There are individual losses of loved ones, physically through death and spiritually through despondency.


message 15: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue | 306 comments Asma wrote: "The "memory of loss" becomes evident towards the novel's end. The loss of what? There's lush, paradisical Tasmania before European colonization with its exploitation of natural resources, of native..."

I'm only about 15% through so I can't comment yet on all those losses. But I will be returning to the book in earnest shortly.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Sue wrote: "...I can't comment yet on all those losses. ..."

Only one part of the book I thought was smarmy or was not up to the demands of originality. That being a near-end part about premature death's preventing a person's living through debilitating old age, and similarly, enabling survivors to remember one's vigor and beauty. I've heard that before and it's a no-brainer.


message 17: by Bryn (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bryn Hammond (brynhammond) | 49 comments I just saw mention in a Flanagan review of Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, as a similar; flashbacks on a deathbed; visionary. It's true Virgil doesn't have his head stuck in a river, and still interacts with people in real time. Even though Broch began his book in a concentration camp, it ended with a wonderful vision, one of the most moving final sections I know. (I've been known to recommend to people just to read the last part if necessary, because it's a difficult book).


message 18: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue | 306 comments Bryn wrote: "I just saw mention in a Flanagan review of Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, as a similar; flashbacks on a deathbed; visionary. It's true Virgil doesn't have his head stuck in a riv..."

This sounds fascinating Bryn. I've added it to my huge list.


Lagullande | 11 comments Well, I finished it. It's a stunning piece of writing for a debut novel. I was left wondering how someone goes about producing a work like that. I would love to know more about the process - how and when the ideas come, how the threads are put together, how many rewrites and over what length of time.

Asma wrote: "Only one part of the book I thought was smarmy or was not up to the demands of originality. That being a near-end part about premature death's preventing a person's living through debilitating old age, and similarly, enabling survivors to remember one's vigor and beauty."

There was one small part that I thought was a little weaker, but for me it was where (view spoiler) - I found it just a little cheesy.

Even so, it's the best book I've read for a while, and I am very much looking forward to the rest of the Flanagan Challenge.....although the last few chapters have left me more terrified than ever, and I am now in discussions with my husband about skipping the rafting in Peru!


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Bryn wrote: "I just saw mention in a Flanagan review of Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, as a similar; flashbacks on a deathbed; visionary. It's true Virgil doesn't have his head stuck in a riv..."

The literary device of extending actual time through imagination and thinking is a satisfying one, almost poetic in its assertion of human spirit. That's what 's sometimes needed in life, especially in overwhelming circumstances. The book you mention looks worth reading. Thanks for the suggestion, Bryn.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Sue wrote: "This sounds fascinating Bryn. I've added it to my huge list."

I've added Broch's book as well!


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Lagullande wrote: "...Even so, it's the best book I've read for a while, and I am very much looking forward to the rest of the Flanagan Challenge.....although the last few chapters have left me more terrified than ever..."

The best-written parts made up for the short stretches near the end of mediocrity. The adventurous narrative description while good didn't have the aura of the visions. Maybe the details of adventure were needed to ground the novel, as sometimes an entire book of magic realism can be exasperating. The combination of detail and surreal is good in this debut novel. I appreciate the author's gargantuan effort to write it and readying it for publication, facts you mention in your post. Yes, it was near the ending also with its details about outrunning the rising river by deft portaging and rafting that made the ending strangely climactic.


message 23: by [deleted user] (new)

Asma wrote: "Sue wrote: "This sounds fascinating Bryn. I've added it to my huge list."

I've added Broch's book as well!"


I have Bryn to thank for having previously read The Death of Virgil and it was a truly great reading experience. Thanks again Bryn. I think you and Sue will find it rewarding.

This book reminded me of two other books as well. I greatly enjoyed and admire Kate Chopin's The Awakening (view spoiler). I'd not be surprised if Flanagan too admired Chopin.

Chopin apparently was an important influence on William Faulkner and I wonder if this might have been a source of inspiration for him to look to The Odyssey for the line from which he derived the title of As I Lay Dying: "As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades." Interestingly a river plays a major role in As I Lay Dying and uses multiple character viewpoints as well including that of a dead woman. After cogitating a fair spell though I've come to think the similarities between Faulkner's book and Flanagan's are outweighed by the dissimilarities (it might be idiosyncratic but what I see as Faulkner's humor casts everything in such a radically different light.) And the rivers in both seem to reference the Greek river of woe, Styx/Archeron, that had to be crossed to get to the afterlife, a coincidence which hardly seems remarkable given the influence of Greek mythology on literature generally.

Another book that resembles Flanagan's is Dostoyevsky's short story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (.pdf at:http://www.colorado.edu/studentgroups... ) in which (view spoiler) (Pardon me I had deleted an earlier post about this which I put in the wrong thread). Visions are central to both Flanagan's and D.'s story but seem to be put to completely opposite uses, one moral, the other amoral (imo). In interviews Flanagan comes off as remarkably well read so undoubtedly his influences are vast and varied, however, River Guide, strikes me as purposefully ambiguous and distant and consequently less rewarding than the other books mentioned.


message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

And in unrelated news, Happy Birthday belatedly to Princess Mary of Denmark who was born 5 February 1972, in Hobart, Tasmania.

http://us.hellomagazine.com/royalty/2...


message 25: by Bryn (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bryn Hammond (brynhammond) | 49 comments Thanks for this post, Don. When I saw your previous mention I went to read 'Dream of a Ridiculous Man', which, along with another person's comparison to Death of Virgil, have helped me clarify or 'place' my feelings towards the Flanagan. The Faulkner sounds as if it would do the same, unfortunately I haven't read that, and the Kate Chopin too long ago. I'm still struggling to come to terms with why/how I found this novel unsatisfying, and seeing it side by side with others, the compare-and-contrast, in fact, has been useful to me.

I'll have to differ from the majority on this one. In spite of being Australian.


message 26: by [deleted user] (new)

Bryn wrote: "I'm still struggling to come to terms with why/how I found this novel unsatisfying, ..."

Same here, Bryn. Another compare and contrast that's been bothering me is with Camus' character Meursault who pops into my mind whenever I think about Aljaz Cosini. Might have to reread yet again The Stranger to resolve that and put those thoughts to bed. Death of a River Guide may be unsatisfying but at least it is thought provoking. Looking forward to the other Flanagan titles scheduled for later.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Don wrote: "...River Guide, strikes me as purposefully ambiguous and distant and consequently less rewarding than the other books mentioned."

An interview with Flanagan around the time of River Guide's publication mentions how the writing of the book differs from what's regarded as literary; rather his method is from Tasmanian oral culture and circular storytelling and his content from some of his direct experience. He seemed to have a difficulty with piecing together and editing the story. Ironically, one of his easiest parts to write quickly when he started was the ending! Imo, that wasn't consistently the best part of the book. He got too realistically detailed like in an adventure story or from an instance of his own experience. http://www.the-write-stuff.com.au/arc...


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Don wrote: "...Happy Birthday belatedly to Princess Mary of Denmark who was born 5 February 1972, in Hobart, Tasmania. http://us.hellomagazine.com/royalty/2......"

Enjoyed the main article and its photographs. What a happy-looking family.


message 29: by [deleted user] (new)

Asma wrote: "An interview with Flanagan around the time ..." Thanks for sharing that link, Asma. Interesting throughout. It does talk about his influences: "When I asked what writers had first influenced him, like Elizabeth Jolley, he replied:

'Comics, they had strong stories, Camus when I was about 12, I read The Outsider, I just thought that was fantastic. Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Heinrich Boll, Faulkner, the South Americans, the only English writer I've liked is Hardy. Conrad, William Blake, Bohumil Hrabal, More recently Toni Morrison. Henry Lawson was everything in our family. We were read to, it was a large Irish-Catholic family, we used to have Henry Lawson read to us, and John O'Brien, who was the poet of the Irish Catholic peasantry in Australia, he wrote these sort of traditional bush ballads." Not sure I followed what he was saying but a lot of authors there for sure.

And glad you enjoyed the Princess Mary story. It was reassuring to see someone from Tasmania whose story, so far at least, appears to be a happy one.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Bryn wrote: "... I'm still struggling to come to terms with why/how I found this novel unsatisfying, and seeing it side by side with others, the compare-and-contrast,..."

You're not the only person who dislikes something indefinable about River Guide in spite of its many good reviews. At least that isn't turning you off to R.F.'s later novels; you're open to those.


message 31: by Bryn (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bryn Hammond (brynhammond) | 49 comments @Asma, I'm keen to read about Tassie convicts, and update myself from the early Australian novel His Natural Life, so I'll at least look into Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish. I don't know whether it has Aboriginal content; I hope so; I had the mistaken impression 'River Guide' was more Aboriginal than it turned out. Have recently watched a great documentary series called The First Australians, with one episode on Tasmania. It has a website: http://www.sbs.com.au/firstaustralians/


message 32: by Bryn (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bryn Hammond (brynhammond) | 49 comments Update on my last. I see that the website has the episodes to watch. The 6 of them are more than recommended, but this is episode 2, set in Tasmania:

http://www.sbs.com.au/firstaustralian...


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Bryn wrote: "...I'll at least look into Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish. I don't know whether it has Aboriginal content; I hope so..."

Descriptions of R.F.'s six novels: http://richardflanagan.com . Looking them over, I must say that the author draws inspiration from everywhere as well as from Australia and Tasmania.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Bryn wrote: "...the website has the episodes to watch...this is episode 2, set in Tasmania: http://www.sbs.com.au/firstaustralian......"

That series of films isn't broadcast into the United States. Maybe a similar one is a BBC or YouTube documentary, found through googling "BBC Aborigines", e.g.


message 35: by Bryn (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bryn Hammond (brynhammond) | 49 comments Asma wrote: "That series of films isn't broadcast into the United States. Maybe a similar one is a BBC or YouTube documentary, found through googling "BBC Aborigines", e.g. ..."

I'm afraid I don't understand how broadcasts work; you mean you can't use the website to watch? That's a pity. Of course there are other documentaries but these were of unique quality, at least when they were made here.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Au...


message 36: by [deleted user] (last edited Feb 07, 2015 05:37AM) (new)

Bryn wrote: "Asma wrote: "That series of films isn't broadcast into the United States. Maybe a similar one is a BBC or YouTube documentary, found through googling "BBC Aborigines", e.g. ..."

I'm afraid I don't..."


I tried watching as well but get a message reading "Due to publishing rights, the content you are trying to watch is currently no available outside of Australia."

Recently became acquainted with film maker Ivan Sen's work whose mother was Aboriginal. Watched two of his films recently (one of Netflix, the other on Amazon Prime streaming). Toomeleh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toomelah... ) gives a moving account of modern life in an indigenous community and I'd highly recommend it. Mystery Road (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mystery_...) was more conventional but still excellent and gave an idea of what life is like in the Queensland outback. I'd highly recommend either to anyone interested in current Aboriginal issues.


message 37: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue | 306 comments I finished the book over night. There were some very powerful sections...I think Aunt Ellie's affected me the most, if I'm remembering correctly. Flannagan's method makes the reading experience almost a vision experience too, with the movement back and forth in time and person.

I agree that the end section was the weakest part of the book but I also commiserate with any author trying to tie all these parts together.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Don wrote: "...Recently became acquainted with film maker Ivan Sen's work whose mother was Aboriginal. Watched two of his films recently..."

Trying to catch up with the Dostoevsky story and the Sen films before I comment :) Thanks for posting them. Eager to read and view them.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Sue wrote: "I finished the book over night. There were some very powerful sections...I think Aunt Ellie's affected me the most..."

Great, Sue. I'm just finishing Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which I read following Flanagan's debut novel, comparing them if that is possible, as in place of magic realism in the latter, there's wry humor in difficult situations in the former. Which do I like better? Flanagan does terrific when Aljaz's gifted visions from the river tell so much of his genealogy. Marra's perspective is also about extreme conditions, and his realistic details about Chechnya are more emotionally affecting. Both authors have their strong points!


message 40: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue | 306 comments Asma wrote: "Sue wrote: "I finished the book over night. There were some very powerful sections...I think Aunt Ellie's affected me the most..."

Great, Sue. I'm just finishing Anthony Marra's [book:A Constellat..."


Perhaps I'll try to fit in Marra's book sooner rather than later. But I'm in the midst of a lot of reading right now. It sounds like a very interesting comparison.

As always, I really enjoyed the descriptive writing. That's one way an author can always win me and Flanagan had some beautiful and powerful segments in those visions---the descriptions of the forests, the towns, the people themselves.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Sue wrote: "...I really enjoyed the descriptive writing. That's one way an author can always win me and Flanagan had some beautiful and powerful segments in those visions..."

Very eager to experience Flanagan's next novel The Sound of One Hand Clapping in a month or so. There's a Sonja in it! The plot and characters feature European emigrants to Tasmania. Like River Guide, the late-twentieth-century story draws upon the past.


message 42: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue | 306 comments I'm planning on reading it though I may miss a bit on the timing.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Don wrote: "...Recently became acquainted with film maker Ivan Sen's work...Toomeleh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toomelah... ) gives a moving account of modern life in an indigenous community ..."

Indeed, a "moving" film. The Wikipedia article and its links about the Stolen Generation, &c are moving as well. Thanks.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Sue wrote: "I'm planning on reading it though I may miss a bit on the timing."

That's okay. The spirit of individualism is a motto here. Sometime, I would like to read whatever you write about The Sound of One Hand Clapping.


message 45: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue | 306 comments Asma wrote: "Sue wrote: "I'm planning on reading it though I may miss a bit on the timing."

That's okay. The spirit of individualism is a motto here. Sometime, I would like to read whatever you write about The..."


Thanks Asma.


message 46: by [deleted user] (new)

Asma wrote: "Indeed, a "moving" film. The Wikipedia article and its links about the Stolen Generation, &c are moving as well. Thanks. " You are welcome. Hope it was worth your time. I find Daniel in my thoughts from time to time.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Nicola wrote: "...Death of a River Guide was not my first novel of choice for Flanagan and I still look forward to Gould's Book of Fish."

I'm anticipating interest in Gould's Book of Fish, perhaps more satisfaction as it's a later novel by the author. Also, its comparison and contrast with ...River Guide and with ...One Hand Clapping:)


message 48: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue | 306 comments I'm not sure whether I will be able to get to this next book, but I'm definitely in for Gould's Book of Fish.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Sue wrote: "I'm not sure whether I will be able to get to this next book, but I'm definitely in for Gould's Book of Fish."

That's terrific, Sue; there is positive feedback about this title. Thanks.


Lagullande | 11 comments Sue wrote: "Lagullande wrote: "I just started reading this yesterday and am kind of wishing I hadn't. We have a trip planned to Peru this summer, which includes a day white-water rafting. As I am someone who g..."

Just dropping back in to say that I survived the rafting today and had great fun!


« previous 1
back to top