One need not read too deeply into David Malouf’s 1990 historical novel The Great World to begin to develop a sense of the character of Jenny Keen, sister of one of Malouf’s two main protagonists. A novel that, like many, takes the reader back and forth through time, adding to our knowledge of and appreciation for its deceptively complicated characters, the figure of Jenny provides Malouf’s novel one of its more poignant depictions. Jenny is mentally handicapped. Their mother had impressed upon Digger Keen the importance of watching out for his sister, who was unable to function independently. Jenny is referred to as “simple minded,” and assumed incapable of the level of understanding and feeling attributed to more “normal” individuals. As the opening of The Great World notes in introducing the reader to this character, “People are not always kind, but the kind thing to say of Jenny was that she was simple.” Malouf’s descriptions of Jenny, however, emphasize that her mental handicap, while rendering her incapable of independence, does not preclude her from being able to view reality through an entirely functional lens. As he continues in his introductory paragraphs:
“But simple was the wrong word for her, or so smaller kids thought, because the real thing about Jenny, as she flopped about with her thick arms and shuffly slippers, was that she was likely to say things and do things too, that you weren’t expecting and could make neither head nor tail of.”
Jenny’s utterances, though, are not without value. In a manner not unlike the image of a “Forrest Gump”-type character, Jenny’s observations are occasionally trenchant. Lacking the mental filter that others might employ in withholding comments out of concern for social propriety, Jenny is prone to saying whatever comes to mind irrespective of conventional perceptions of “good manners.” As Malouf notes, “[s]he often said things you had thought of but never quite come up with, and when you did, bit off.”
That Jenny, it would be revealed, had given birth to a child in her youth, a child given up out of concern for her inability to parent it, lends additional gravitas in a context in which the family at the center of this novel, the Keens, had experienced so much loss in the form of siblings who died in infancy. The character of Jenny, while possessed of diminished mental capacity, is rendered whole by Malouf’s thoughtful depiction of a human being and not an object of derision.