Most novelists tend to find a niche tonally, thematically, and stylistically in which they feel comfortable and which best exemplifies their strengths as writers. Keneally started his career as a writer of Australian themes, but he did not stick to that pattern. What is different about him as a writer is that he provides the reader with opportunities to think about his work in many different ways because he never writes the same novel twice. Even novelists of very high quality tend to stick to one sort of work, but Keneally is a restless writer, and one can never be sure what he will write next. He is an extremely sensitive commentator on the Australian scene, not only in terms of its colonial legacy, as explored in Bring Larks and Heroes, his novel The Playmaker (1987), and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, with its concern for the plight of the natives, but also in terms of contemporary Australian life in works such as Three Cheers for the Paraclete and The Cut-Rate Kingdom (1980), a wry tale of Australian politics during World War II, when the country was in serious danger of falling into the hands of the Japanese.
The Australian theme can, however, be extended beyond the continent in interesting ways, as it is in his two novels about Antarctic exploration. In The Survivor (1969) and A Victim of the Aurora (1977), Keneally’s natural curiosity, intense enthusiasm for researching his projects, and inclination to see characters under stress as likely to indulge in bizarre conduct take the novels beyond the level of simple adventure narrative into much wider and richer areas. It is, in fact, his zest for research that helps Keneally avoid the label of provincialism that besets so many novelists who explore what is termed “the Commonwealth theme.”
Keneally is a novelist who might well be considered a historical writer. Sadly, such a label tends to suggest adventure at the expense of accuracy or literary quality, but this is not the case with Keneally, although if he may be considered to occupy any literary niche, this would be it. Blood Red, Sister Rose is the first example of his move into non-Australian historical themes, but it is not the last. Gossip from the Forest (1975) relates what happened in the forest of Compiègne, where meetings were held to negotiate the 1918 peace treaty between the Allies and the Germans. His 1979 novel, Confederates, is about the Civil War campaign in Virginia in 1862. The Tyrant’s Novel, published in 2003, takes place in an oil-rich Middle Eastern nation where a dictator, modeled after Saddam Hussein, has hired a ghostwriter to pen a work that will extol his questionably beneficent rule and help lift the international sanctions against his country. Narrated in retrospect by the coerced novelist who eventually abandons this project, which blurs the line between fact and fiction in sinister ways, the tale is, in part, Keneally’s personal indictment of how individuals seeking refuge in the West are often ill treated by their host countries.
Keneally’s natural sympathy for the underdog has sometimes threatened the artistic balance between narrative and message. For example, his novel To Asmara (1989), set in Ethiopia in the late 1980’s, tells the story of the battle between the Ethiopian majority and the Eritrean rebels. It starts out by exploring the reactions of several well-meaning foreigners to the disaster. Keneally conducted research, spent some time in the country, and came away not only distressed by what he saw but also outraged by the way in which the Eritrean cause had been misrepresented by the world press and political leaders. He was determined to redress the situation through his novel, and it is an interesting case of how the message, however valid, gets in the way of the final artistic success of the book. The novel raises the intriguing question of how far a work of...
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