TO ASMARA is more than merely fiction. In 1987, Thomas Keneally went to Eritrea--the country within Ethiopia struggling to gain independence--and saw firsthand what the civil war has done to the people and to the land. The characters of TO ASMARA may not be real, but the events are authentic. Keneally is not trying to be an objective reporter. He is an advocate of a particular point of view. Ethiopia is the ruthless and barbaric enemy in this novel; Eritrea is the principled and rebellious province fighting for freedom. Keneally is a brilliant novelist, and the starkness of TO ASMARA works not only as fiction but also as an eye-opening education for the uninitiated.
Timothy Darcy, the principal narrator of the novel, is an Australian reporter sent to the area to do a story for THE LONDON TIMES. He is also a man trying to escape his past, a man seriously wounded by a bitter marriage. Each of the other characters has something to hide or something to answer for; they too have chosen to do penance in a war zone. There is a French girl, Christine Malmedy, who has come to search for her famous photographer father and to escape the so-called civilized world of Paris, where she lost a baby to illness as well as a boyfriend through desertion. She decides that a war zone could not be any worse than what she has already endured and that there is a noble quality to endeavors in pursuit of a just cause. The other characters find themselves becoming more alive than they have ever been. Not all can ultimately be called heroic, but--each in his or her own way--they all leave their mark. Keneally has produced a remarkable account, and one can only hope that there will be a swift and just solution to this prolonged and tragic struggle.