Thomas Keneally Keneally, Thomas (Michael)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Thomas (Michael) Keneally 1935–

Australian novelist.

Keneally is one of his country's most prolific contemporary writers. He is of Irish-Catholic descent and spent several years studying for the priesthood. Unable to accept traditional Catholic doctrine, Keneally left the seminary, but his writing is pervaded with his continuing concern with human conscience and moral principles. Early novels such as The Place at Whitton (1964), a gothic horror story set in a seminary, and Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968), which features a liberal Catholic priest, directly reflect his religious experiences.

Many of his later novels, however, center on historical incidents. Peter Ackroyd has commented that, "In Keneally's hands the historical novel is redeemed as the raw materials of the past are turned into a kind of fable." Most critics agree that Keneally offers a fresh perspective to historical events by focusing on the people involved and their struggle with moral choices. Critics praise his narrative voice, his careful characterization, and his sense of place.

Bring Larks and Heroes (1968), described as the historical novel that "made his name," depicts social interaction within the early convict society. Another important novel, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), offers insight into Australia's race relations by reforming the story of a half-breed turned outlaw. The Joan of Arc legend and the horrors of fifteenth-century warfare are the subjects of Keneally's Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974). Other novels dealing with war include Gossip from the Forest (1976) (the Armistice of 1918), Season in Purgatory (1977) (the partisans of Yugoslavia during World War II), Confederates (1979) (the American Civil War), and his recent Schindler's Ark (the survival of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust due to the efforts of a German industrialist). Schindler's Ark, which won the prestigious Booker McConnell Prize in 1982, exemplifies Keneally's skill at personalizing history.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 10, 14, 19 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Peter Kemp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark (published in the United States as Schindler's List)] deals with Europe during the Second World War….

Schindler's Ark is largely documentary: the account of a Sudeten German industrialist who saved at least 1,300 Jews from the extermination camps. Based on interviews with those who knew him, it aims 'to use the texture and devices of a novel to tell a true story'. What makes this approach peculiarly appropriate is that Schindler's life frequently resembles something from fiction. Running an armaments factory that produced nothing, playing cards with a demented Nazi for a Jewish girl's life, he seems a blend of Good Soldier Svejk and Scarlet Pimpernel.

A large, easy man, convivial, womanising, Schindler moved into Cracow in 1939, looking—in the wake of the Nazi oc-cupation—for commercial opportunities. What he encountered was a different kind of opportunity: that of snatching lives from liquidation. To his eternal credit, he responded with energetic enterprise. Schindler's bon viveur good nature had ensured him a wide network of friends, drinking cronies, mistresses. When he saw what was happening to the Jews, this same good nature impelled him to turn the network into a (usually unrealising) rescue organisation. Bribes and bluff, cognac and con-man effrontery won him permission to run his own camp for the Jewish workers in his factory. Here, with heroic chicanery, he defended them against the Nazis….

Examining in detail Schindler's extraordinary oasis, Keneally surrounds it with a panorama of enormities. The Nazi shambles is meticulously reconstructed; each stage in the persecution of the Polish Jews is sickeningly charted, from the first sporadic houndings to the chemical abattoirs and fuming crematoria of Auschwitz. The book looks at both the feverishly sub-human and the freezingly dehumanised: on the one hand, SS psychopaths barking out brutalities as their wolfhounds rip at prisoners;...

(The entire section is 3,089 words.)