Question 7 by Richard Flanagan - review by Rosa Lyster

Rosa Lyster

Kiss of Death

Question 7


Chatto & Windus 288pp £18.99

H G Wells and Rebecca West are standing in front of a bookcase, talking frantically at each other about matters of literary style, moving closer and closer until they kiss. The physicist Leo Szilard is somewhere near the British Museum, staring down the street and watching the traffic lights change. A man in a Japanese prison camp is waiting to see if he will die of hunger or exhaustion, or be murdered by his guards when American forces invade. 

Post-kiss, an overwhelmed Wells darts off to Switzerland in an effort to get away from his feelings for West (he is married and forty-six; she is alarmingly free-spirited and nineteen). There, he begins work on The World Set Free, a mediocre novel in which he predicts the invention of the atomic bomb. It is The World Set Free that Szilard is thinking of while watching the traffic lights change near Russell Square, conceiving of the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction. It is just such a chain reaction that leads to the deaths of tens of thousands of people when an atomic bomb is detonated over Hiroshima. 

Despite the bomb, The World Set Free and the two people kissing in front of a bookcase, the man in the prison camp survives. He is set free when the Japanese army surrenders, and he goes back home to Tasmania, where he gets married and has lots of children, one of whom will grow up to write Question 7. Richard Flanagan’s book takes its title from Chekhov’s ‘Questions Posed by a Mad Mathematician’: ‘a train had to leave station A at 3am in order to reach station B at 11pm; just as the train was about to depart, however, an order came that the train had to reach station B by 7pm. Who loves longer, a man or a woman?’ Flanagan poses versions of this question throughout the book. Why do we do what we do to one another? Does a certain number of possible deaths tomorrow justify a certain number of possible deaths today? How are we supposed to live with the fact that only some people’s suffering is seen to matter? Where do the limits of responsibility end? Whose fault is this? These are meant to act as a counterpoint to ‘the idea that life is infinitely measurable, that all human wanting and torment and laughter, all hate and all love, can be reduced to that contemporary word metrics’.

It is sobering, or at least produces a shiver of second-hand embarrassment, to think how badly such an idea might unravel. It’s easy to imagine a tawdry or vapid or absurdly self-important version of this book in which the author draws a line from himself to the excruciating deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, taking in along the way a panicky literary romance, the Tasmanian genocide, Australia’s convict system and his complicated relationship with his grandmother. Posing unanswerable questions and dawdling over their unanswerability can come across as fey or annoying. Repeatedly drawing attention to the unreliability of memory and the ultimate uselessness of words as a means of conveying human experience can, in a book about memory and the chaos of human experience, feel like a cop-out. 

Question 7, amazingly, avoids all of these yawning traps. It is thoughtful and often beautiful, moving without effort between the very big and the apparently very small. Flanagan is a riveting writer, whether he is describing the path to the creation of the atomic bomb or his mother pulling over to the side of the road so she could fill up discarded superphosphate bags with the red soil she remembers from her childhood. 

The book is at its best when Flanagan takes his biggest risks, as in a chapter where he manages to pull together the government-sponsored extermination of Tasmania’s Aboriginal people, the death of the last Tasmanian tiger in captivity and childhood holidays spent in the Tasmanian rainforest, now almost totally destroyed: ‘For a long time I could not understand that it was possible to be both on the side that has the power, that has unleashed the destruction, vast as it is indescribable, and, at the same time, be on the side that loses everything.’ 

Of his father, Flanagan writes, ‘he would tell an anecdote about someone or other in Cleveland, the tiny Georgian coaching hamlet set in some raggedy woodland in the Tasmanian Midlands, where he had been born the month Germany invaded Belgium in 1914, and you would see the event, the tragedy, in some larger human light.’ Question 7 is full of such anecdotes, which are not really anecdotes at all, but as good a way as any of trying to explain what it means to be a thinking person with a present and a future, and a past that stretches as far back as you can bear to think.

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