Thomas Keneally Long Fiction Analysis

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Thomas Keneally has written books on a variety of subjects. His first novel to attain international readership, Bring Larks and Heroes, presents the barbarous life of eighteenth century Sydney; Three Cheers for the Paraclete concerns a Catholic priest who attacks the Church for its indifference to social evil; The Survivor and A Victim of the Aurora are stories about Antarctic expeditions, told in flashback by aged narrators; A Dutiful Daughter is a surrealistic tale of a family in which the parents are bovine from the waist down. One may, however, separate Keneally’s work into two parts, albeit roughly: the novels that deal with seemingly ordinary, contemporary individuals, and the wide range of what might be called historical novels.

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In a large portion of his work, Keneally concerns himself with European history, examining closely the human beings involved, seeing the past not as the present sees it, as a series of neatly wrapped, complete events, but as the participants experience it: as a jumble of occurrences that seem to have little meaning or purpose. Although some reviewers have commented on the portentousness lurking in the background of such works as Gossip from the Forest, a fictionalized re-creation of the 1918 peace talks that led to the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, such “damaging knowingness” is only partly Keneally’s fault; after all, the present knows what happened in the past, at least in outline.

It must be emphasized that Keneally’s historically based fiction is not about ordinary people set against a celebrity-filled background, in the manner of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975). Keneally’s works deal with the historical figures themselves, presenting them as human beings embroiled in the quotidian matters from which the historical events reveal themselves gradually. The writer’s knowledge of history shapes the delineation of the plot. Furthermore, theprotagonist’s awareness of his or her importance to posterity comes only in flashes. When such awareness occurs, it is as a result of the character’s makeup; Joan of Arc, for example, was a visionary, and it is unavoidable that, as a character, she knows something of her eventual fate.

It cannot be denied that what Keneally attempts to do in his historically based novels is difficult; that he succeeds as well as he does is primarily a result of a spare, objective style that is at times brilliant, such as in this description of Yugoslav partisans from Season in Purgatory: “Grenades blossomed like some quaint ethnic ornamentation down the front of their coats.” The third-person narration, deceptively simple, pretending to mere description, seems detached (at times too detached): Schindler’s List, based on a German industrialist’s widely successful efforts to save “his” Jews from the Holocaust, at times suffers from an almost sprightly tone, as if the author were so determined to be objective that he expunged any sense of moral outrage from his account. At its best, the stark simplicity of Keneally’s prose throws into sharp relief the horrors of which history is made.

After the success of Schindler’s List, Keneally focused on another aspect of Holocaust subject matter in A Family Madness, based on the mass suicide of a family of five in suburban Sydney in July, 1984. The story traces the legacy of guilt that impairs the lives of Nazi collaborators and their children. Then Keneally turned to contemporary warfare in To Asmara, a fictional consideration of civil strife in Ethiopia in the 1980’s as told by a narrator, an Australian journalist. His Flying Hero Class is a departure from works based in fact, images of war, and war’s impacts on people’s lives, as it is confined to events on an airplane hijacked en route from Frankfurt to New York. In Woman of the Inner Sea , Keneally returns to fact-based fiction with the...

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Thomas Keneally World Literature Analysis