Death of a River Guide: Review

“I realise I am floating above everything that has been my life, my time, my place. And yet, as I look beneath me it all seems so strange.”

Richard Flanagan’s debut novel immediately submerges its readers as it plunges into the story of his near death experience and of his becoming an author.


Death of a River Guide was published in 1994 and follows the life of Aljaz Cosini. As he lies drowning in a Tasmanian river, it is not just his own life that swims before his eyes but the life of his family and his ancestors.

The novel opens with the birth of Flanagan’s character, which he has no choice but to watch. Aljaz is forced to relive his days; relive the death of his mother, his father, his child. He can do nothing but look back upon a series of losses.

He must also observe the farewells he has never and could never have seen until his dying moments; the death of his grandmother and his great aunt who died before his own birth; the death of Aaron Hersey and Ned Quade; strangers he had never met.

He is also witness to their lives. Aljaz’s family history unfolds before his eyes as it ends with him under the rushing waters of a river that he once knew and loved so well.

Like the novel’s author, Aljaz was a river guide. And like Aljaz, Flanagan found himself at the bottom of a Tasmanian river. He was just 21 at the time, and he came very close to death.

‘I was in a bad way. I knew I was going’ the author said in a documentary based on his life.

Richard Flanagan: Life After Death recreates the near death experience that led Flanagan to becoming a writer in the visually stunning introduction to the acclaimed episode of BBC One’s long-running arts strand Imagine.

Flanagan’s experience not only led him to becoming an author but also inspired his first novel. Within Death of a River Guide there are hints of the central character having a change in mind-set, much like those Flanagan experienced.

After a life of tragedy and of not belonging leaves Aljaz, he realises – too late – that he wants to live. Dying alone under the unstoppable force of nature that is the Franklin River, he realises that he is scared to die.

“I have been granted visions – grand, great, wild, sweeping visions. My mind rattles with them as they are born to me. And I must share them, or their magic will become as a burden.”

And so Flanagan shared his visions.

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