Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 19)
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, Vols. 5, 8, 10, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
[In "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith"] Thomas Keneally has chosen an actual incident—in 1900, when the disparate [Australian] states were rapidly but uneasily moving toward federation—around which to weave a powerful and disturbing fiction: the growth of a half-caste young man, Jimmie Blacksmith, from Methodist "mission black" to murderer and outlaw. Here are the trappings of "In Cold Blood"—rural isolation, slaughter, manhunt—but the impulse, the motivations and, most important, Keneally's highly charged and distinctive style are quite different.
Jimmie has been sharpened yet confused, made ambitious yet is uprooted, by the thin nurture of Christianity and other Western notions. Behind him lie the impoverished and debased lives of such people as his uncle Tabidgi and his half-brother Mort; yet Keneally sets in high relief the inheritance they represent, in their instinctive poetry and in the immensities of their own religion. Left to themselves, they would have worked out their destinies….
At best patronized, at worst cheated and wronged in every conceivable mean-minded way, [Jimmie] is ready to wreak havoc…. Gradually the question occurs to him—does he not have "a license to run mad" in view of the cruelties he has suffered from white men? Goaded to blind fury, the answer is yes….
Jimmie and his half-brother go off on a "walkabout" that leaves in its wake a trail of further murders....
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The Times Literary Supplement
If we think of "the mythology of Australian history" in terms of imaginative fiction, one name springs instantly to mind: Patrick White. With Voss and The Tree of Man he mapped out a territory which seemed to be peculiarly his own. Anyone else working the same ground could scarcely help but appear as an imitator. So it's particularly interesting to see a talented writer like Thomas Keneally staking his claim in the White territory.
Mr. Keneally's [The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith] … is set in rural New South Wales at the turn of the century and seems to shadow White at several points, though it may simply be that, handling the same sort of material (farming life, and the social flux of a century still in process of completion), there is an overlapping of documentary detail, plus a focusing on the mythological features of the period. But they have something else in common—a painter's eye, a humane particularity of observation….
The narrative moves along at a compelling pace, but the finer points of characterization and relationship are never sacrificed to the demands of the action.
"Over the Fence," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3680, September 15, 1972, p. 1041.
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ALAN L. McLEOD
A Victim of the Aurora, a detective story concerned with homosexuality on a polar expedition, demonstrates that the author is wholly out of his métier, raises serious questions about his literary capacity and denies most assuredly the publisher's claim that "Keneally has never written with greater eloquence or authority." In all essential elements the novel suggests carelessness or decline in construction and composition: characterization is sketchy and ineffectual; description is fitful, inadequate and lacking in precision or detail; language is repetitive, void of the customary flashes of beauty and poetry; plot is contrived, often unexplained and unconvincing because too contrived. The elements of the baroque that marked some of the author's earlier work reappear, as do several attempts at pretentiousness, such as a torturous quasi-psychological analysis of the Hamlet-like motivation of one of the characters.
The book is marred by numerous insertions of "filler" that Keneally presumably feels is unknown to his readers, by inadvertent shifts from British to American usage … and inaccurate cultural information that should provide plausibility. He suggests that before World War II British upper-class speech and behavior were unknown to the lower classes…. A Victim of the Aurora is a great disappointment, a sad decline from the artistry of Bring Larks and Heroes and Jimmie Blacksmith....
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Race relations in Australia's past, and, by implication, present are the accepted theme of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and discussion of the novel, whatever success it is seen to have, has started from this assumption. There are, however, two further ways in which the book needs to be seen to appreciate how it explores beyond the social-racial level, and to pinpoint more accurately the role of Keneally as narrator. The first of these approaches is to set the Blacksmith story against that of its historical prototypes, the Governor brothers; the second is to see Jimmie not as fictional black or half-caste, but as the most successfully drawn of Keneally's recurrent sensitive, oppressed, ultimately self-destructive victims.
Keneally has stated he drew upon contemporary newspapers…. A more proximate source, however, which seems to have had considerable impact on the novel, is the retelling of the Governor story by Frank Clune. (p. 121)
[Keneally] adopted more than just the bones of the story without alteration. The changes he made are of three types—racial, narrative, and psychological or thematic. In the first place Joe, a half-caste and Jimmy's full brother, becomes Morton, a full-blood and Jimmie's half-brother. The result of this is an increase in Jimmie's isolation from both the black and the white world; it shows him to be as excluded from the tribal beliefs as he is from the community espousing the...
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Thomas Keneally has always aimed at high seriousness. His works reveal an epic ambition, attempting to reconcile with domestic reality the consciousness of some larger life beyond the self. Unlike many Australian writers, he has been less concerned to work out a personal myth than to come to terms with a more general sense of the self as Australian, suspended between belonging and alienation, between the realities of an Australia which is, in culture, English-speaking, and of, on the other hand, an Australia which is, in geographic fact, Asian and alien, barbarous, splendid and unanswerably, its own place. For this reason he has always been a writer who mattered, even when he is writing too much too quickly or when, as in the novels since The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, he no longer seems directly concerned with Australia or Australians. The abiding concerns and, above all, the sense of reality which he derives from his sense of himself as an Australian remain. Indeed, these later novels seem to be more, not less, filled with the sense of alienation, of dislocated vision which he characterises as typical of Australians, the more so because as the physical environment itself has disappeared the peculiar menace it embodies grows stronger.
Certainly, in Keneally's own work, the humane and artistic sense has always been under pressure. His first novel, The Fear, describes a childhood beset not only by a sense of the land as a sacred place...
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History intimidates fiction. It threatens the play of the imagination by confronting it with unavoidable facts, and obtrudes actual incidents upon provocative inventions. But history, of course, also aids and abets fiction. It encourages a proper attention to detail and character by insisting that, in spite of its enormous scale, it is in reality a mosaic of related fragments and individuals. Thomas Keneally is well aware of this, but it does not stop him, in his new novel Confederates, wandering too freely and frequently across the line which divides constrained research from detailed imaginative freedom. As he describes the fortunes of the Northern Virginia Army in 1862—the year in which they had particularly difficult military problems to solve—he veers between giving a moving re-creation of local but representative events, and lapsing into rehearsals of sterile fact. And as if this uncertainty were not enough, Keneally compounds its effects with the very thing he hopes will cure them. Whenever he feels himself likely to be accused of writing a historical account rather than a historical novel, he works himself into an excess of imaginative vigour—usually over some more or less stomach-turning episode. The result is an ambitious but very uneven book which directs most of its interest below the belt. No doubt exalted emotions were few and far between in the ranks of the Confederate army—but here its attempts to form a coherent nation...
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[In Passenger, Thomas Keneally] has written the first novel to have its narrator and protagonist in utero throughout: the child in the womb of Sal Fitzgerald. With paradoxical omniscience he tells us all that happens to him, his begetters, and those around him, from the awakening of his awareness in the earliest days of Sal's pregnancy to full term. (p. ii)
This powerfully imagined device works wonderfully well, and we are led at once into a web of conflicts and ambivalences. Irish Sal, a novelist, accepts and cherishes the pregnancy. Brian [the father], Australian born, descendant of an eighteenth-century Irish rebel deported to Australia, is a journalist, an incorrigible womanizer, and is terrified at the idea of parenthood. He confesses to acute "fear of the unborn." From the start he wants this pregnancy terminated.
For the passenger and the reader a tremendous suspense builds up over the safety of this indweller. (pp. ii, iv)
The resolution of this terrifying situation involves the fourth major character, a mysterious man whose stunted stature causes us to know him chiefly as "the Gnome." He is alarming in his first appearances until it is seen that he has a most unexpected role to play in relation to Sal and to her child, who develops the same kind of total awareness of the Gnome, too. Mr. Keneally spins all this into a spellbinding tale, involving variously laughter, fright, and...
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A. L. McLEOD
[Keneally] has impressed most readers and critics with his incredibly fecund invention and his impressively felicitous phrases in a dozen books written during the same number of years, yet Passenger must surely be his most complexly structured novel…. [But its complexity] may be an impediment to the achievement of its ultimate goal: the elucidation of the relationship of lovers and spouses and of these to "terminal love"—the fetus. Nonetheless, the skill with which events … are handled in both stream-of-consciousness and flashback techniques and made compatible with contemporary narration by a three-ounce fetus, "the reliquary of all the secrets" of his mother, is impressive.
The novelty of the point of view—the omniscience of the "passenger" in "the black duchy of the amnion"—is, of course, remarkable; but it is perhaps too daring, and at times the whole novel seems in jeopardy: caricature, irony and satire seem almost to intrude enough to dispel the tragic and frightening atmosphere and to turn a serious study into a comedy or fantasy. There are, to be sure, eccentric characters…. But the principal characters, with the sole exception of the journalist father ("a studied barbarian," "a man of immured fears"), are developed with care and compassion and provide genuine insights to the ramifications of love, hate, sex and parenthood.
The plot, which is frequently punctuated by gothic episodes,...
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"Confederates" is exceptional in the Keneally corpus for its American—namely, Civil War—setting, yet typical of an author who has continually challenged his abilities with diverse material….
"Confederates" reaffirms Mr. Keneally's mastery of narrative voice…. With "Confederates,"… it is almost necessary to remind oneself that the author is Australian, so naturally, intrinsically Southern is the narrative voice. Considering the recent glut of such idiom, which national politics has forced into general usage, Mr. Keneally's unobtrusive coloring of dialect and dialogue is all the more remarkable for its absence of false notes….
The idiom is more marked, of course, in a range of speaking characters that includes black slaves, poor Virginia farmers, Louisiana rivermen, Southern aristocrats and the military's rich regional mixture.
The action of the novel is confined to events on the Confederate side of the war during the summer of 1862 and to their effect on four central characters. (p. 3)
[One of the characters], Stonewall Jackson, remains apart from, if not above the fray, a neurotic military professor … recast by war's daily lessons into a leader; keen research lies behind this blending of historical reality and fictional intimacy.
Mr. Keneally also depends on historical fact for the novel's larger elements, such as geography, troop movements, battle...
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