Thomas Keneally Essay - Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 14)

Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 14)

Blake Morrison

Thomas Keneally's fictions are widely travelled: medieval Normandy, an 18th-century penal colony in the South Pacific, France in 1918, the Antarctic (twice)—you name it, they've been there. Passenger happens in the most exotic place of all: 'I sat in the black duchy of the amnion. Through the blood vessels of the placenta I took bounties from my mother's body—oxygens, minerals, carbohydrates.' This is no ordinary pregnancy:… [the foetus-narrator] has a precociously clear vision of the outside world. It's the Romantic idea of insightful childhood pushed one step further—the wise womb—and it makes for an old-fashioned omniscient narrative: the wide-awake foetus can see for miles and miles. His overview, though, is not exactly one of fingernail-paring detachment, for our unborn hero is threatened with the knives of abortion….

It may not be Keneally's best novel (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith takes some beating) but it's his wittiest and most inventive. So strong and original is the narrative voice that he manages to work in a great deal—the foetus's Oedipus complex, the Gnome's shady business dealing, extracts from Sal's novel—without letting the main events lose their grip. And though it's not anti-abortionist in intention—the foetus is careful to stress that it's only his own life he wants to save—Keneally's lyrical responsiveness to the womb, with its 'rich lakes of wild and plentiful cilia, of browsing bacteria, of hearty corpuscles and of those flabbergasting denizens, the chromosomes', makes Passenger a quietly effective little protection campaign for the unborn child.

Blake Morrison, "The Wise Womb," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 97, No. 2496, January 19, 1979, p. 88.∗

Hermione Lee

Keneally's newest narrator [in Passenger] is a foetus, a pugnacious little fellow who's been jolted into omniscience by a hologram taken to establish his sex. As the laser beams 'pepper up his cortex,' lovely Sal Fitzgerald's passenger becomes 'arrantly awake' to his family history, his father's infidelities, and the threats to his own existence….

Passenger is a witty variant on the picaresque tradition, jauntily sustained, and versatile, in that the narrative contrivance, itself fantastical, allows the fantastical developments. But we have to be insistently reminded of how much the foetus-hero knows, and it's hard for Keneally not to be cute about the little man ('I ground my fist against my sealed left eye') nor to indulge in this kind of amniotic rhapsody: 'I rode the warm estuaries of Sal's blood and heard it singing.'

Fortunately the novel is solidified by a recurrent parallel between the foetus and one of his ancestors, Maurice Fitzgerald, servant to a revolutionary naturalist, who travelled in 1799 from Cork to Australia in the hold of a convict ship. Sal is writing a book about him, and Keneally might easily have done so had he wanted to prove again his talent for historical reconstruction. Instead he uses that story to enforce his treatment of bondage: knowledge helpless without power. Both 'heroes' have been 'assigned a narrow billet by a higher authority'; both know 'there was no princedom on earth where anguish could not make its run.' The analogy turns a whimsical experiment into something more considerable and earnest than it first seems.

Hermione Lee, "A Womb with a View," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9778, January 21, 1979, p. 35.∗

D. J. Enright

At first sight, the donnée of Thomas Keneally's new novel [Passenger] lies in its narrator, a foetus…. 'The rose or weed of knowledge opened in my hand, and I, as it were, fingered all its petals.'…

This sounds like science fiction, but in the event the book is much farther from that genre than was Thomas Keneally's earlier novel, A Dutiful Daughter, which was also much more horrific. There, children had to cope with parents who turned into physical monsters; and the son declared that moral blindness towards 'freaks' derives from 'our poisonous concept of what's natural'. Here, a foetus has to cope with a mildly barbarian father and his concept of what is convenient to him: the natural is now at risk. But the privileged foetus simply serves as the novelist's eye, a necessary convention, and—more importantly—as an essentially conventional character in its own right: indeed, as the hero, or potential victim, in that (like many another foetus) its arrival at birth is by no means certain.

If the author enjoys the benefit of the foetus, the foetus (in the way that Hamlet was a poet) enjoys the benefit of the author, who endows him with a pungent prose style and an exciting pre-life, even a rather cultivated one….

It is a tribute to the engaging qualities of Passenger that the reader (one, at any rate) leafs tremulously towards the last pages, hoping against experience to find a happy ending. What a novelty such a novel would be!

D. J. Enright, "Fortunate Foetus," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of D. J. Enright), Vol. 101, No. 2594, January 25, 1979, p. 174.

Lucy Hughes-Hallet

The narrator of Thomas Keneally's Passenger hasn't been born yet and at certain points in the course of the story it begins to look doubtful whether he ever will be….

The tone, suitable to an unborn narrator, is one of innocent cynicism. The foetus, absorbing human knowledge with one pulsation of the umbilicus, finds it all acceptable but for the squalid fact of birth and views the antics of those unlucky enough to have left the womb with a high-flown pity tempered by the horrid knowledge that he must soon join them. There is a taste of syrup in the prose, as in the premise, which might deter some readers and the plot meanders with no apparent purpose other than that of giving the foetus lots to talk about. But Keneally carries it off beautifully. Archaic words and elaborately convoluted clauses abound but they don't snag up the sentences, only twist them in smoothly attractive eddies. His writing has a lovely lilt to it that carried me through his disjointed story as unprotesting as the narrator placidly swimming in the amniotic fluid.

Lucy Hughes-Hallet, "Thomas Keneally's 'Passenger'" (© copyright Lucy Hughes-Hallet 1979; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 24, No. 6, March, 1979, p. 56.

Daphne Merkin

"Passenger" is a wonderfully poised novel. It rattles along at great speed without ever missing out on the telling, piquantly humorous detail. Mr. Keneally has taken on a bold range of subjects—parenthood, sexuality, psychiatry—and serves them up with a rare, Nabokovian verve that yet manages to sound the depths. His novel should be read for the sheer jeu d'esprit of it, although "Passenger" is more than fun.

Daphne Merkin, "Parents and Their Problems," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 8, 1979, p. 13.∗

Stephen Vaughan

War, like the sea is slow to give up its dead; any verdict on a novel of war so immediately overwhelming as Thomas Keneally's ['Confederates'] should similarly be the slow fruit of rumination.

Since there is no such breathing space for the reviewer, one is tempted to risk the opinion that this author has excelled the achievement of his 'Gossip from the Forest' and 'Season in Purgatory' and that 'Confederates' deserves some comparison with the two great war novels of the last hundred years in the language, 'The Red Badge of Courage' and 'Her Privates We,' one of which stemmed from the bloody springs of experience and one from an imagination of genius.

It is stock-in-trade nowadays that the poetry of war is in the pity, but compassion at the finger tips is another matter from Keneally's compassion of the heart. The setting is the American Civil War, specifically the Stonewall Brigade of the Virginia Volunteers bound for the hinge of fate and Antietam. Thus the title on the face of it applies to the scarecrow army of the South with a clinching elusive victory in the sights of its (inferior) rifles. But the scenes of battle and forage are contrapuntal to the theme that envelops them all, haters, fraternisers, whores, deserters, farm boys, slaves and brass hats alike, all victims and confederates in the pity and madness of war.

Huge and sprawling as the canvas is, the individuality of these fighting and yearning men is retained in spare, telling prose, with few of the purple sorties that this author sometimes ventures. And how many war books bring home the feel of the earth itself, the ever-present earth that takes the blood and the shit and the dreams of tired infantrymen?

As an Australian writing about events so thronged with ghosts, altars and portents for our time but also so fervently and proprietorially American, Kenneally is treading on holy ground. Dangerous ground, too, with such forerunners as Crane, Faulkner, Bierce, Sandburg, but he avoids the pitfalls of pastiche in this noble book.

Stephen Vaughan, "Boys in Blue," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9817, October 21, 1979, p. 39.∗

Michael Ratcliffe

I confess to finding the randy villain of that uterine jest [Passenger] a more sharply conceived and executed figure than any of those who toil through the mud and blood of the North Virginian Army [in Confederates] as it desperately seeks through 1862 to bring the British Government, politically, into the war.

Confederates, in short, is Keneally's American Civil War Novel. He has done his reading thoroughly, listed the main sources at the end, made a craftsmanlike fiction out of them, and moved on to the next job. Hard not to feel that the precariously sustained subplots of adultery and amorous espionage are there for the attention of casting-directors and that a brief...

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