Thomas Keneally Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 5)

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Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Keneally, Thomas 1935–

Keneally, an Australian Catholic novelist of Irish ancestry, has written eight novels. His most recent novel, Blood Red, Sister Rose, will undoubtedly establish his international reputation.

A Dutiful Daughter is a disquieting novel and in many instances a moving one—qualities which testify, above all, to Thomas Keneally's skill in using to his advantage a subject which in less capable hands might have looked merely grotesque, or even ridiculous. Not that the grotesque is in short supply—for two of the four principal characters have been afflicted by a horrific physical metamorphosis which has left them half animal, half human.

Barbara and Damian Glover have kept secret their parents' sudden, inexplicable change into what might best be described as bovine centaurs. Damian, now at university and beginning to find a life outside the terrible emotional claustrophobia in which his sister remains trapped, is becoming increasingly divided between a concern for his parents' plight and a need to break away from them, and from an obsessive relationship with his sister. Barbara, meanwhile, tends to her parents much as she might tend ailing cattle, although her commitment to them is more than filial….

The parents are, as it were, kept from us in the opening stages of the book, though we know something of their suffering, and this cleverly organized suspense leaves us almost fearing their appearance. They remain for some time offstage: heard but not seen; and we are given shocking (because almost specific) details by way of frightening props—the medication Barbara is preparing for her mother, for example, has instructions which read: "Dispose of infected bedding … aborted foetuses … and afterbirth by deep burial in quicklime." But more than anything, it is the sense of the quotidian, of the impossible accepted as fact that lend the book its own bizarre credibility. The story seen as fable or metaphor—though that is obviously part of Mr. Keneally's design—seems not to overwhelm the characters, nor leave us hunting symbolic meanings in every turn of events. The second-person narrative gives the impression that Damian is being addressed by the narrator—or more probably addressing himself—and the accusatory (or self-accusatory) tone mellows, at times, into a sort of bemused recollection which fits precisely the painful, hopeless approximations to normality of the whole family. The success of the book lies in that tone—in the way tragedy, black comedy and emotional chaos are made to reside in acts of simple concern.

"Horses for Courses," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1971; reproduced by permission), April 23, 1971, p. 465.

One of the soundest laws of modern literature goes like this: novelists with the most damned consciences tend to write the most blessed prose. On the lengthy roster headed, of course, by James Joyce, Thomas Keneally supplies another case in point.

Like Joyce, Keneally once studied with a view to the priesthood. Joyce could not decide whether to define hell as Dublin or the nuclear family. Keneally agrees with Joyce about the family. His alternate hell seems to be his native Australia, and like Joyce again, he takes his hell both ways.

In A Dutiful Daughter, Keneally creates a presumably commonplace family—the Glovers—plunks them down on an isolated outback farm, and pronounces the scene his ninth circle…. Observing that "absolutely millions of people" are mad with "family pride," he concludes that "the only way for them to get humility is through learning they're—you know—beasts." Accordingly, like a Greek mythologist with the heart of a gloomy seminary student, Keneally makes original sin literal by turning Father and Mother Glover into bull and cow from the waist down.

This violent act of surrealism accomplished, Keneally continues as if nothing had happened. He has the special power of a poker-face comedian telling a gallows joke. Father and Mother...

(The entire section is 3,681 words.)