First Person is Richard Flanagan’s new part-novel, part-memoir. He appears to have sought a balance between these two genres in a more obvious way then the usual novelist. First Person is unexpected in many ways and goes against the norm of a typical novel.
The story’s protagonist (and narrator) is Kif Kehlmann, a struggling writer from Tasmania with a three year old daughter and a wife who is pregnant with twins. He is approached to ghostwrite a notorious conman’s memoir for a sum that would appear to solve his family’s problems and the task itself promises to provide Kif with the purpose and self-assurance that he constantly seems to be in need of. Pride and well-warranted internal warnings hold him back from immediately accepting but eventually he agrees to the project and thus begins his journey to work at creating a sensational memoir with a deadline hanging over him and a dangerous criminal at the helm.
Richard Flanagan himself wrote an autobiography for an Australian fraudster, known as John Friedrich, back in 1991. I researched more on the subject and First Person time and again drew extreme similarities to Richard Flanagan’s own experience – even down to the sum offered as remuneration and that his wife was pregnant with twins at the time. He has acknowledged that his own experience has served as inspiration for First Person and initially to me this made the novel feel more significant to me. ‘
On further reflection though, I think it ultimately hindered the novel. If Flanagan had decided that this was to be his own ‘first person’ account of events that he experienced writing Death of a River Guide about John Friedrich then personally I think I would have enjoyed the book a lot more. A novel by definition is fiction and fiction doesn’t have to be as close to the original truth as Flanagan has placed it.
The story at certain stages finds a definite purpose, but all too often it veers off into irrelevancies, to the point that the main motive of the novel is nearly forgotten. Finally, the story moves back to the writing of the memoir of the fraudster, but it seems as though the story goes in constant circles and serpentines, repeating the same events and situations slightly differently and in a progressively amplified manner. The climax was sprung upon you with no time to prepare – the reader doesn’t have time to comprehend that this is what everything was building towards.
Unfortunately the faster pace doesn’t carry on for the rest of the novel, which slows back down to the point where you’re left wondering if there is supposed to be another climax building, though that never delivers. The concept of the story was solid, but I just wish Richard Flanagan had chosen one course – fiction or fact – rather than trying to incorporate both to the extent that he seems to have.
This wasn’t a book I particularly enjoyed, I have seen it described as a literary masterpiece and I definitely can acknowledge that Richard Flanagan is a very good writer. But it seems I was not alone in not enjoying it despite his ability, as I found other reviews that communicated the same view. I feel like the novel is an acquired taste for a particular audience. I have not yet developed this taste.
Reviewed by Sarah Hayward
by Richard Flanagan
Published by Knopf Australia