Thomas Michael Keneally (kuh-NEE-lee), one of Australia’s best-regarded and most prolific writers, was born to Catholic parents of Irish ancestry. He was educated at St. Patrick’s College in Strathfield, New South Wales, and studied first for the priesthood—the young priest in Three Cheers for the Paraclete reflects Keneally’s training, and Keneally’s Catholicism pervades his novels—and later for a law career. He taught in a high school in Sydney from 1960 to 1964 before marrying Judith Martin in 1965, a year after he had published his first novel, The Place at Whitton. Keneally later disparaged this novel, as well as the second, The Fear, which he has termed the “obligatory” account of a novelist’s childhood. Despite his later disdain for these early novels, they won critical acclaim (the Miles Franklin Award in 1967 and 1968, and the Captain Cook Bi-Centenary Prize in 1970) and established Keneally as a leading novelist.
In 1966 and 1968, Keneally’s first two plays were produced, and in 1968 he became a lecturer in drama at the University of New England in New South Wales. His third novel, Bring Larks and Heroes, the account of a young soldier’s exile to Australia, was followed by two novels in the English novel-of-manners tradition. In A Dutiful Daughter, however, he abandoned the realistic psychological novel for an expressionistic portrait of an Australian family with two normal children and a mother and father who from the waist down are half cow and half bull. After A Dutiful Daughter, Keneally retreated from these fantastic extremes, but he has retained his use of myths, fable, and parable.
In his post-1971 novels, he often focuses on historical figures, some of legendary or mythic stature. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, more accessible and more popular than A Dutiful Daughter, concerns a half-Aborigine forced into crime; Blood Red, Sister Rose examines the myth associated with Joan of Arc; and Schindler’s Ark (Schindler’s List in the United States) recounts a German industrialist’s activities helping tens of thousands of Jews escape death during the Nazi years. For the most part, with some exceptions, Keneally’s fictional world ranges chronologically from the time of Australia’s settlement by convicts (this is described in The Playmaker, a novel written for the Australian centenary celebration) to the late 1980’s. Although many of the later novels are set in Australia, Keneally transcends national boundaries in Gossip from the Forest, which concerns the negotiation of the armistice in 1918; A Victim of the Aurora, an account of an Arctic expedition; and To Asmara, a fictional account of the state of the Eritrean rebellion in 1987. He has also experimented with style, as in Passenger, in which he moves from a realistic narrative that is almost factual in its attention to historical details to a narrative from the point of view of an unborn child.
Although Keneally’s work is difficult to characterize because of the diversity of style, subject matter, and setting, certain themes consistently pervade his work. His characters often seem guilt-ridden, because of their involvement in an exploitative society or because of their individual moral failures, and isolated from others. Australian history may also account for his focus on the clash of cultures, which is best reflected in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, in which the white establishment is shown physically and spiritually raping the aboriginal culture. Though Jimmie’s fate is the ostensible focus of the novel, justice is depicted as the product of nationalistic interests rather than individual guilt or innocence. When in A Family Madness the clash of...
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cultures involves twentieth century Australians and descendants of Byelorussian emigrants who had come to Sydney in the late 1940’s, Keneally suggests that the family is geographically but not psychologically free. Keneally draws heavily on his knowledge of Australian history and folklore, which he has also used inOutback; he seems to have a divided sensibility, as James Joyce did, about his native country. The Cut-Rate Kingdom establishes a parallel between the personal and the national in a novel that ponders the narrator’s and Australia’s appropriate role as spectator or participant in 1942.
Although he is acknowledged as one of the best Australian writers of the twentieth century, critics have expressed reservations about the speed and apparent ease with which Keneally writes (he is a prolific novelist), and there is a question about whether he is an evolving writer or a random one. There is less disagreement about his willingness to address fictionally the most important issues of contemporary life: the Holocaust, colonialism, and political machinations, with their implications for the individual. To treat these issues Keneally has used, fairly consistently, a style both fictional and documentary in nature. One of the strengths of his novels is their historical authenticity. Yet Keneally cannot be categorized in the popular tradition of such historical novelists as Irving Stone and Kenneth Roberts. When he draws on the accounts of Schindler’s acts, for example, his focus remains on Schindler the person, not on the details of his work. Keneally’s willingness to address important issues and his ability to engage his readers in addition to the popularity of the film adaptations of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) and Schindler’s List (1993) have made him an international writer.