This work exemplifies Keneally’s ability to mix his interest in his native land, Australia, with two other interests: his enthusiasm for detailed historical research and his fascination with how characters, good or bad, respond to pressure. The historical frame for the novel is World War II. It is sometimes forgotten that Australia was seriously threatened by the possibility of invasion by the Japanese during that war. The Japanese had considerable success early in the conflict and had earned a reputation as fearsome warriors and barbarous conquerors. The novel is written in the context of the fear not only of invasion but also of certain defeat and what that would mean to the Australian population.
The story is told by “Paper” Tyson, a journalist with some of the social gifts of Keneally himself. He is easygoing, worldly-wise, and generous. He is a longtime friend of the Labor prime minister of Australia, Johnny Mulhall. The choice of Tyson as the voice of the novel is important, since his point of view shapes the way in which the reader responds to the book. Tyson, a veteran of World War I, during which he lost a leg at Gallipoli, is mature and possessed of a deep sense of Australian history and politics. He provides a moral, intellectual, and sometimes emotional context for the complicated unrest of a nation on the edge of terror. The enemy is ripping through New Guinea, an easy jump away from the Australian mainland. In capturing the level of suspense created by the country’s collective fear of invasion, the novel is of considerable power, but it goes further in exploring the problems of the enemies within. These are the prowling politicians “greased with animus” and the arrogant American military, camped in the country as if on a battleship offshore from the hard fighting. There is an American general with a corncob pipe and his eye on the presidency of the United States who is muscling his way into the Australian war effort. Keneally’s satiric depiction of the infuriating pomposity of Douglas MacArthur, the commander of Allied forces in the South Pacific, provides some comic relief.
Without alienating their American allies, the Australians attempt to retain some independence, and it is in this area that Keneally explores the theme of national identity and character. Internal politics are also examined as the socialist Prime Minister Mulhall fights American pressures on one side and his own party on the other while the war gobbles up Australian boys and military conscription becomes a necessity. His detractors see the working-class boys as simply cannon fodder; the Australians’ feeling of being used is exacerbated by the general perception that America is treating Australia as a “cut-rate kingdom.”
These large public questions influence Tyson and Mulhall in their private lives too. Their love affairs, and those of others, affect the way power is used at the highest levels of the government. If the novel shows that politics and love should not mix, it also reveals the way in which Keneally can blend several themes at the same time, develop a period feel, describe the terror of the New Guinea battlefields, and satirize the social and intellectual aridity of Canberra, where the politicians, the military, the promoters, and their hangers-on push and shove for power, profit, and pleasure.
Baumann, Paul. “Never a Question of Easy Grace: Thomas Keneally’s Fantastical Creatures.” Commonweal 116, no. 13 (July, 1989): 395.
Keneally, Thomas. “Indefensible Acts.” Interview by Judith Shulevitz. The New York Times Book Review, April 7, 1991.
Kennedy, David. “Poor Simulacra: Images of Hunger, the Politics of Aid, and Keneally’s To Asmara.” Mosaic 24, nos. 3/4 (Summer/Fall, 1991): 179-190.
Pierce, Peter. Australian Melodramas: Thomas Keneally’s Fiction. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1995.
Pierce, Peter. “’The Critics Made Me’: The Receptions of Thomas Keneally and Australian Literary Culture.” Australian Literary Studies 17 (May, 1995): 99-104.
Quartermaine, Peter. Thomas Keneally. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.
Ramson, William, ed. The Australian Experience: Cultural Essays on Australian Novels. Canberra: Australian National University, 1974.
Thorpe, Michael. Review of To Asmara, by Thomas Keneally. World Literature Today 64 (Spring, 1990): 360.
Vice, Sue. Holocaust Fiction. London: Routledge, 2000.
Willbanks, Ray. Australian Voices. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.
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