Wanting

A Novel

Richard Flanagan

Atlantic Monthly Press: 256 pp., $24

If there is one lesson that the writer and editor can learn from George W. Bush's war on terror -- and I mean one insightful, nongeopolitical lesson -- it is this: Beware of people who lean too heavily on abstract nouns. What they inevitably seek is not so much wiggle room as slither room -- of course, the war on poverty or the war on drugs, which is itself a sort of war on the poor (that is the sort of irony one can only appreciate in the comfort of one's home). In none of these cases does the actual war turn out to have all that much to do with its market-ready moniker. In other words, judge neither a war nor indeed a book by its title -- especially a book with a title as thuddingly banal as this one.

In "Wanting," Richard Flanagan has written an exquisite, profoundly moving, intricately structured meditation about the desire for human connection in its many forms -- that commingling of compassion, curiosity, care, lust, attraction, intrigue, selfishness and selflessness that is clumsily grouped under that most perilous of all abstract nouns: love.

Of course, "love fulfilled" is duller than "love thwarted," and "love thwarted by outside means" is less tragic and psychologically interesting than self-thwarting: This book is actually about repression and is accordingly set in Victorian England and Australia. It principally tracks three characters: the rigid and ambitious Lady Jane Franklin, whose husband, John, governs Tasmania; Mathinna, an aborigine girl whom Lady Janeadopts, ostensibly as an experiment in "civilizing the savage" but, in a truth she cannot admit even to herself, because she wants to be a mother; and Charles Dickens. Mercifully, Flanagan makes no attempt to penetrate Dickens' writerly mind; we see him, rather, as an energetic theater impresario, an accomplished actor and an unhappy husband.

The stories meet when Lady Jane enlists Dickens' help in advocating for her husband: He never returned from a polar expedition, and she wants to end the rumors that he and his crew resorted to cannibalism as they slowly froze to death. She admits to Dickens the possibility (in fact, the certainty) that her husband is dead, but she finds slanderous the accusation that a crew of civilized Englishmen ate one another to survive.

Dickens concurs: "The convict, the Esquimau, the savage: all are enslaved not by the bone around their brain . . . but by their passions. . . . A man like Sir John is liberated from such by his civilized and Christian spirit." Later in the book, Sir John is revealed to be a man of surpassing vileness, and his wife a frigid manipulative shrew of the most English type. She is smart enough to know her husband is a plodding dullard, but "he was malleable and . . . she could become the principal creator of his reputation. She resolved to be both his muse and his maker." She believes fiercely in the trappings of civilization, and she clothes her maternal yearnings for Mathinna -- a happy, vibrant girl, always dancing barefoot and in a red dress -- in high-minded ideals to cloak her feelings, which seem to her something of a weakness.

Dickens finds himself caught in a similar struggle: He has long propounded the centrality of family (Flanagan, to his credit, notes that the veneration of the family, far from being natural, is largely a Victorian conceit, having "arrived like the steam train, unexpectedly but undeniably"), while finding his wife repulsive and forging a bond with only one of his children, Dora, who dies just as the novel begins. His lust for a pretty young actress in his troupe, Ellen Ternan, is less affecting, less complex and more conventional than Lady Jane's for Mathinna. As moony love stories go, this one is well done enough (there is an especially nice scene involving a cherry pit -- a PG-13 scene, I should add). At times this love story -- and indeed several other plot strands -- treads perilously close to Lifetime Movie of the Week territory, but Flanagan's sound aesthetic instincts and keen eye keep the book on the right side of mawkishness.

Ultimately, however, this is Mathinna's book -- paradoxically, because Flanagan grants her less interiority than Lady Jane or Dickens. We are left to intuit what she thinks and feels from her actions and dialogue, which makes her all the more real -- that is, after all, what we do with other people (and it helps that Flanagan is incapable of writing a dull or stock character: He is empathic in flashes of lightning). She flits at the book's edges, a vivid dancing figure in a red dress and bare feet, just as she flits at the consciousness of its characters: They see her for what she represents, rather than what she is.

Fasman is the author of the novels "The Geographer's Library" and "The Unpossessed City."