Death of a River Guide: A Review

by Lester Picker

I just finished reading “Death of a River Guide” by Richard Flanagan, a Tasmanian author. At the risk of sounding a bit like an overzealous missionary, I have to stay that I was stunned, absolutely bowled over by the prose and the inventive story arc. In short, “Death of a River Guide” is one of the best novels I have ever read, over a period of nearly sixty years of reading novels.

On the face of it, the premise of the novel is strange, if not off-putting. We learn in the first chapter that the narrator is drowning. So how can an author sustain a story when we know that the protagonist will die? How can anyone weave such a beautiful, emotionally rich, beautifully descriptive story during the time that it takes a man to drown?

The answer, quite simply, is in the mesmerizing prose. Flanagan’s novels have been nominated for the Mann Booker Prize many times, and no wonder. His writing brought me to tears many times in the novel, and not always from its deep emotionality. The writing is so compelling, so evocative, so beautifully crafted, that I found myself highlighting passages and rereading them. Yes, my own novels have received lavish praise from readers, but reading the work of a true master was both humbling and inspirational.

Without giving away major elects of the story, the narrator, Aljaz, is a mixed-blood aboriginal who knows the river intimately, a sometimes angry, raging river within whose waters he drowns. Flanagan’s descriptions of the wild and unpredictable Tasmanian river sent chills down my spine. In his descriptions of the Tasmanian forests, I could smell, feel and see the tall stands of pine that Aljaz’s ancestors harvested. But it was Flanagan’s ability to reach deep into the soul of the characters that made me shake my head in wonder at how simple words, painstakingly crafted together by a master storyteller, could so thoroughly move me.

I intend to read other of Flanagan’s works. If you are looking for a wonderful read, I cannot recommend “Death of a River Guide” more highly.