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It is 1839 and a young Aboriginal girl, Mathinna, is running through long wet grass on an island at the end of the world to get help for her dying father. Twenty years later, on an island at the centre of the world, the most famous novelist of the day, Charles Dickens, is about to abandon his wife and risk his name and reputation. Connecting the two events are the most celebrated explorer of the age, Sir John Franklin – then governor of Van Diemen’s Land – and his wife, Lady Jane, who adopt Mathinna as an experiment. Lady Jane believes the distance between savagery and civilisation is the learned capacity to control wanting. The experiment fails, Sir John disappears into the blue ice of the Arctic seeking the North-West Passage, and a decade later Lady Jane enlists Dickens’s aid to put an end to scandalous gossip that Sir John’s expedition ended in cannibalism. Dickens becomes more entranced in the story of men entombed in ice, recognising in its terrible image his own frozen inner life. He produces and stars in a play inspired by Franklin’s fate to give voice to his central belief: that discipline and will can conquer desire. Yet the play brings him to a point where he is finally no longer able to control his own passion. Wanting is a novel about art, love, and the way in which life is finally determined never by reason, but only ever by wanting.

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