A Family Madness

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

While it is not yet possible to provide a general assessment of the impact made in the United States by contemporary works of Australian art, there is no doubt that an impact of some magnitude has been felt among critics and tastemakers. Contemporary Australian writers, musicians, and filmmakers currently receive, for the most part deservedly, the quality of attention previously reserved for their British counterparts. Indeed, it may be that the relative decline of Great Britain as a source of artistic innovation has facilitated the emergence of one of its juridical dependencies, an emergence marked by a distinctive accent, resonant voice, and commendable ambition. Cultural historians will probably date this development from the formation of the Oz group in London in the late 1960’s. From the standpoint of literary history, however, the coming into fashion of Australian fiction dates, perhaps accidentally, from the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973 to the novelist Patrick White, until then the only Australian novelist with an international reputation of any magnitude.

Among the Australian novelists who have come to the fore since 1973, pride of place goes to Thomas Keneally. Not only has he been his generation’s most prolific novelist, but he has also been the most varied and inventive in his choice of material and been less confined than some of his contemporaries to his native land. Basically known as a historical novelist, he has written well-received novels on, among other areas, the American Civil War, Joan of Arc, and both world wars. The particular fascination of A Family Madness (his fifteenth novel) is that it confronts his native Australia with historical phenomena not of its making, resulting in a work that is both a continuation of the author’s meditation on history and its human costs as well as a critique of the historical phenomena typical of the twentieth century.

Australia as a fresh, new, naïve, shallow society is very much to the fore in A Family Madness. Not all those attributes are embodied in the protagonist, Terry Delaney. In his ordinariness, however, or, rather, in the authenticity of his unadulterated Australian persona, he provides access to them. The principal means by which the author characterizes Terry’s definitively antipodean personality is that he plays Rugby League.

Unlike Rugby Union, the game played in the United States, the United Kingdom, and in former British colonies, Rugby League is played professionally. In fact, part of its distinctive character is that it was originally conceived and organized in the industrial areas of Northern England with professionalism in mind. As a result, it is virtually impossible to think about Rugby League without thinking about social class—in particular, about the creation and survival of indigenous working-class leisure activity. Although Terry Delaney only plays in the equivalent of the minor leagues, the fact that Rugby League is the game he plays (rather, the game to which he is devoted) gives him an air of refractory independence, a sense of physical staunchness, and a socially significant undercurrent of solidarity with his neighborhood and his class. The author is doing something more subtle than exploiting the fact that his fellow countrymen are sports lovers, for the sport which Terry loves carries with it a large amount of social and cultural freight.

The possibility of becoming indifferent to a sport which he not only loves but which is also a medium of expression for him is allied to other challenges that beset Terry’s Australian identity in the course of the novel. Though not a member of the family whose madness the book recounts, he is vulnerable to it, implicated in it, and ultimately changed by his encounter with it. As a result of his involvement with the Kappels, his marriage enters a rapid decline, his traditional Catholicism is of no avail, and he finds that there is nothing in his own cultural heritage (originally Irish, like that of a large number of Australians) which might help him to confront and outwit what the Kappels represent. Finally, Terry has to confront the fact that he has only his own capacity to suffer and endure to see himself through the devastating events that form the novel’s climax.

From a larger perspective than that which the novel’s characters offer, A Family Madness provides a painful, serious challenge to the republicantinged, virile, limited brand of citizenship that Terry—almost uniquely (the exception being his father, Greg)—embodies. This challenge is all the more formidable in view of the jaundiced view of modern Sydney that the novel in passing provides. Confining itself largely to suburbia, the novel presents an unattractive picture of an all too recognizable modern community, characterized by opportunism, corruption, crime, and the craven and transparent inadequacy of most forms of community culture (Penrith, Terry’s Rugby League club, survives largely from the proceeds of its clubhouse bar and slot machines). In addition, many of the old neighborhoods are now inhabited by emigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, who, while they adapt to the social codes of a material civilization, bring with them moral and emotional codes which ostensibly have no place in a society such as that of contemporary Australia. In a sense, the tensions which Terry Delaney is forced to experience as a result of the novel’s plot already exist, though less dramatically, in the society from which the plot derives.

Yet, A Family Madness is rather more than a sociological treatise on the social ills of contemporary Australia. Its domestic dimension is at once defined and augmented by the role in the novel of the Kappel family, whose madness shapes Terry’s destiny and the book’s action. The Kappels are anything but Australian,...

(The entire section is 2400 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Contemporary Review. CCXLVIII, January, 1986, p. 45.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, January 1, 1986, p. 9.

The London Review of Books. VII, November 7, 1985, p. 24.

New Statesman. CX, October 4, 1985, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, March 16, 1986, p. 9.

The New Yorker. LXII, May 19, 1986, p. 118.

Newsweek. CVII, March 31, 1986, p. 70.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, January 17, 1986, p. 62.

Time. CXXVII, March 31, 1986, p. 70.

Times Literary Supplement. October 18, 1985, p. 1169.