Keneally, Thomas 1935–
An Australian novelist, Keneally is an ex-seminarian of Irish-Catholic descent. Best known for his Blood Red, Sister Rose, a retelling of the Joan of Arc legend, Keneally has been praised both for his realistic characterizations and his use of history. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, 8.)
In the course of doing research for a World War I film script, the Australian Thomas Keneally was, fortunately for novel readers, sidetracked into an exhaustive study of the members of the Armistice Team. The result of his effort is Gossip from the Forest, a gripping evocation of the tensions of the time and of the men who made the Armistice….
All of the shortsighted military arrogance in the story arouses mainly disgust in the reader. What the politicians and military officers did there at Compiègne to end their war games is not presented as either very intelligent or very important. This is one sense, at least, in which the story amounts, ironically, to mere gossip from the forest. That Marshal Foch and his attendants, in forcing their terms on Germany did little more than "weave a scab over that pit of corpses four years deep" seems painfully clear now. (p. 157)
In probing the murk of personality, Keneally demonstrates that the men who made the event are more compelling than the event itself. He examines the characters' private and public lives in detail—through their dreams, through comments of the men about each other, through copious conversations, through reminiscences about lovers and home and family.
Atrocities, both military and civilian, and the brutal execution of power are commonplace in Keneally's books, as readers of Bring Larks and Heroes, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and Blood Red, Sister Rose are aware. But with Gossip from the Forest Keneally has succeeded better than in any of his previous books in lighting the lives of historical figures and in convincing us that people are really the events of history. (pp. 157-58)
Robert E. McDowell, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977.
Thomas Keneally is frequently spoken of as "the other" major Australian novelist. But in the present instance comparison is unfair. "Season in Purgatory" … is entertainment with only intermittent and infelicitous pretensions to anything more. (p. 132)
[One] asks oneself just why Mr. Keneally, whose previous novels show an oddly costive but unmistakable stylishness and adultness, should turn out this purple tripe. He is obsessed by the sensual texture of history, by the immediate impress of political and military drama on the nerve and marrow of those involved. Like Patrick White, this novelist out of a new, almost "nonhistorical" continent is immersing himself in the dense, equivocal European past. His immediately preceding book, "Gossip from the Forest," a highly schematic, allegorized portrayal of the Compiègne armistice talks of 1918, was an interesting failure. "Season in Purgatory" is a boring success. (p. 134)
George Steiner, in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), May 23, 1977.
Although the publishers describe [A Victim of the Aurora] as 'Thomas Keneally's first detective story', it effectively marks the demise of that debased and flatulent genre…. It is set at the close of the sticky Edwardian era and so, theoretically, it might be described just as easily as an historical novel—but, like all of Keneally's work it actually subverts European history … by bringing to it alien and more vigorous perceptions…. In Keneally's hands the historical novel is redeemed as the raw materials of the past are turned into a kind of fable.
These blinding metaphysical matters don't mean that Keneally is forgetful of technical considerations. He astutely aligns the imaginative content of historical fiction with the pert structure of the detective thriller, and by conflating them creates a new thing. (p. 19)
But this is not a weak-kneed or vapidly ironic handling of the techniques of English fiction…. Thomas Keneally is a powerful and subtle writer, whose simplicity of style must never be confused with simplicity of meaning. He actually uses the Polar Expedition as a way of breaking several historical codes, as the Edwardian age vanishes as mysteriously as the aurora itself….
The book is full … of extraordinary images and implications. In all of Thomas Keneally's work there is an attempt at what I have called the subversion of received European history by rendering it both more exactly—his sense of place is remarkable—and more luridly. It is part of the strange darkness of the Australian imagination. The colour, the vivid imaginings, the rhetorical simplicity of his evocation of the past have to do with Keneally's own manner, but also with a quality in Australian writing: its bleakness and its blank pessimism…. (p. 20)
Peter Ackroyd, "Burning Down," in The Spectator (© 1977 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 3, 1977, pp. 19-20.
There is no more diligent soothsayer than Thomas Keneally, forever poking about among the entrails of the European past for some clue, previously missed, to the development of a present that no rational seer before about 1950 could have predicted. His last three books have drawn attention to significant stages in the attenuation of the old European chivalric virtues, and their replacement by bloodthirst, vengeful greed, and the tyranny of the majority. Now, in A Victim of the Aurora, he focuses on two related aspects of that corruption—the ease with which old-fashioned virtues like loyalty can be manipulated for bad ends by charismatic leaders, and the willingness with which even their victims will co-operate. (p. 382)
Mr Keneally's most immediately striking achievement in this new book is to make you simply want to know what happens next. A Victim of the Aurora is an excellent whodunit and a splendid adventure story, with the atmosphere of its Antarctic setting most brilliantly evoked and sustained. But its importance does not lie in these undoubted virtues, uncommon and enjoyable as they are. It lies in Mr Keneally's clear-sighted view of how vulnerable conventional men are to the poisoned authority of great leaders, and of how calmly the best of us can be led to sanction abominations in the name of the common good. (p. 383)
Neil Hepburn, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of Neil Hepburn), September 22, 1977.
The early years of this century were the heroic years of Antarctic exploration and it is in this period that A Victim of the Aurora is set. The pity is that, unreal though the novel is, it defiles the historical events and characters from which it derives. Thomas Keneally has chosen to use clearly recognizable episodes from the past as a backdrop for homosexuality, murder, execution and other unworthy practices and qualities ascribed to characters who are imaginary, yet many of whom would seem easily identifiable to anyone with a vague general knowledge of polar exploration….
Today it is commonplace for writers to seek to destroy idols of the past. All sorts of ideas and motives are thought up for them and adjectives are judiciously chosen which will denigrate a person without the need to make a direct statement which could be refuted. Thomas Keneally achieves this result in an original way. All the characters in his who-done-it have something discreditable to hide. They also suffer from obscure and complex processes which would be unlikely to get them past even the most naive selection board. Indeed, one becomes somewhat confused by their odd mentalities….
The inaccuracies of fact and the silly idea of a lone survivor living the life of a hermit in some ice cave can be forgiven, the misrepresentation of what is for many a way of life cannot.
Vivian Fuchs, "Polluting the Ice-Cap," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 14, 1977, p. 1185.
You can read [Victim of the Aurora] on several levels, all of them entertaining and provocative. It is an adventure story, the tale of an expedition to Antarctica in the years just before World War I. It is a mystery in the classic British style, complete with a murder most foul, a large cast of plausible suspects, and a narrator who fits together all the pieces of the puzzle. And it is a thoughtful novel about the corruption of innocence, the unending burden of guilt, and the perpetuation of official deceit….
[Keneally's] depiction of Edwardian innocence and stuffiness crashing against the Antartic void is superb, as is the manner in which each member of the expedition is pressed to bear...
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[It] almost seems that Thomas Keneally, on a slow day, picked up a copy of "The Survivor"—his earlier Antarctic novel—turned the plot over in his mind awhile, and decided to rework it with a few new twists. In "The Survivor" a middle-aged man reflected upon the disaster that overcame the leader of his South Pole expedition, and tried to deal with his own guilt, which grew out of his brief affair with the leader's wife. In "Victim of the Aurora," an old man in a nursing home refelcts on the disaster that occurred to his South Pole expedition (this time a murder). But at the periphery, once again, is a leader troubled by his wife's infidelity with one of his men; and the man is consumed with self-reproach....
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