Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan

‘I have been granted visions – grand, great, wild, sweeping visions.  My mind rattles with them as they are born to me.’

Aljaz Cosini and Jason Krezwa are river guides, taking a group of tourists on a raft trip down Tasmania’s Franklin River. Rain falls, and the river is in flood.  Flowing rapidly, the Franklin is more dangerous.  One of the tourists falls overboard and drowns.  Then Aljaz becomes trapped under a rapid, and as he drowns is beset with visions.  It is said that drowning men will see their life flash before them.  But Aljaz’s visions are not confined to his own life, not just a replay of a life about to end.  Aljaz’s visions include the lives of his parents and their ancestors, they also include other aspects of human impact on Tasmania.  Life and death, action and consequence.

‘Slowly people appear around me, faces of people I have never met but about whom I know everything.’

I found this novel both challenging and uplifting.  Challenging because Mr Flanagan manages to describe aspects of Tasmanian history that many of us would prefer to forget or ignore, and uplifting because the language he uses to do this is so rich in imagery. This was Richard Flanagan’s first novel, published in 1994.  While I didn’t like it quite as much as his second novel, ‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’, I suspect this is because ‘Death of a River Guide’ makes me far more uncomfortable about the past.  It is not an easy read, but I found it rewarding.

‘A river can grant you visions in an act at once generous and despicable, but even a river like the Franklin in full flood cannot explain everything.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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