Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Keneally goes back to the Antarctic theme in a later novel, A Victim of the Aurora (1977), but that work, although it has slight similarities to The Survivor, is much more of a piece in its tonal seriousness, and it takes the idea of betrayal on the ice to the point of murder. The Survivor illustrates Keneally’s gift for thematic and tonal range, and it is particularly useful for dispelling the idea that he is always committed to deeply serious subjects. This is not to suggest that Ramsey’s problems are not of some moment but that Keneally’s gift for comedy and satire and for writing with rococo rubato (without falling over into cuteness) is generously used in this novel. His later novels have, in the main, been committed strongly to themes of emotional depth, although there are flashes of his comic gift in The Cut-Rate Kingdom (1980), his novel about Australian politics during World War II.

He also has the gift of being a regional novelist without being provincial and his reading of Australian character, at its best in its forthright suspicion of cant and at its worst in its rough-hewn awkwardisms, runs subtly through the work. Ramsey is a common sort of protagonist for Keneally, decent, intelligent, unimpressed by power, and susceptible to taking his own failures too seriously: the image of the perfect Australian gentleman (although “gentleman” might be too pretentious a word for a man of a country sensitive of its British connections.)