Death of a River Guide
by Richard Flanagan
McPhee Gribble, $14.95 pb
Before you start this novel, take a big, deep breath. Aljaz Cosini – riverguide, ex-footballer, drifter – is drowning, and we’re going along for the ride. There he is, stuck fast beneath the surface of Tasmania’s Franklin River, hopelessly wedged between rocks, his one free arm waving grotesquely to the unlikely band of adventurers who have paid for his services. The irony isn’t lost on him. Not much is lost on him at all. It seems his whole life, from his miraculous birth (struggling to break free from the restrictive sac of amniotic fluid) to his final humiliation on the river, has been leading inevitably to this moment. And now the river carries not only his own past but the pasts of all those who have gone before him like a great tide of stories washing over him, pushing him down, forcing more and more water into his lungs. Stories, stories, stories. A world and a land and even a river full of the damn slippery things.
And what marvellous stories they are, full of miracles and wonders and visions: the walls of the Hobart cathedral bleeding at Eileen’s funeral; trees bursting into flower in mid-winter; Father Noone freezing the adulterer and creating a patch of barren ground; the heroic failure of Slattery running backwards to lose the 400 metres at the Tasmanian high school championships; Aunt Ellie whistling up the wind; Uncle Reg selling his teeth to build a ripple-iron house; Harry’s monumental barbecue and the phantom tigers, devils and children who come to eat from it; Maria Magdalena Svevo’s tear-stained bedspread.