Thomas Keneally's fictions are widely travelled: medieval Normandy, an 18th-century penal colony in the South Pacific, France in 1918, the Antarctic (twice)—you name it, they've been there. Passenger happens in the most exotic place of all: 'I sat in the black duchy of the amnion. Through the blood vessels of the placenta I took bounties from my mother's body—oxygens, minerals, carbohydrates.' This is no ordinary pregnancy:… [the foetus-narrator] has a precociously clear vision of the outside world. It's the Romantic idea of insightful childhood pushed one step further—the wise womb—and it makes for an old-fashioned omniscient narrative: the wide-awake foetus can see for miles and miles. His overview, though, is not exactly one of fingernail-paring detachment, for our unborn hero is threatened with the knives of abortion….
It may not be Keneally's best novel (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith takes some beating) but it's his wittiest and most inventive. So strong and original is the narrative voice that he manages to work in a great deal—the foetus's Oedipus complex, the Gnome's shady business dealing, extracts from Sal's novel—without letting the main events lose their grip. And though it's not anti-abortionist in intention—the foetus is careful to stress that it's only his own life he wants to save—Keneally's lyrical responsiveness to the womb, with its 'rich lakes of wild and plentiful cilia, of browsing bacteria, of hearty corpuscles and of those flabbergasting denizens, the chromosomes', makes Passenger a quietly effective little protection campaign for the unborn child.
Blake Morrison, "The Wise Womb," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 97, No. 2496, January 19, 1979, p. 88.∗
Keneally's newest narrator [in Passenger] is a foetus, a pugnacious little fellow who's been jolted into omniscience by a hologram taken to establish his sex. As the laser beams 'pepper up his cortex,' lovely Sal Fitzgerald's passenger becomes 'arrantly awake' to his family history, his father's infidelities, and the threats to his own existence….
Passenger is a witty variant on the picaresque tradition, jauntily sustained, and versatile, in that the narrative contrivance, itself fantastical, allows the fantastical developments. But we have to be insistently reminded of how much the foetus-hero knows, and it's hard for Keneally not to be cute about the little man ('I ground my fist against my sealed left eye') nor to indulge in this kind of amniotic rhapsody: 'I rode the warm estuaries of Sal's blood and heard it singing.'
Fortunately the novel is solidified by a recurrent parallel between the foetus and one of his ancestors, Maurice Fitzgerald, servant to a revolutionary naturalist, who travelled in 1799 from Cork to Australia in the hold of a convict ship. Sal is writing a book about him, and Keneally might easily have done so had he wanted to prove again his talent for historical reconstruction. Instead he uses that story to enforce his treatment of bondage: knowledge helpless without power. Both 'heroes' have been 'assigned a narrow billet by a higher authority'; both know 'there was no princedom on earth where anguish could not make its run.' The analogy turns a whimsical experiment into something more considerable and earnest than it first seems.
Hermione Lee, "A Womb with a View," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9778, January 21, 1979, p. 35.∗
D. J. Enright
At first sight, the donnée of Thomas Keneally's new novel [Passenger] lies in its narrator, a foetus…. 'The rose or weed of knowledge opened in my hand, and I, as it were, fingered all its petals.'…
This sounds like science fiction, but in the event the book is much farther from that genre than was Thomas Keneally's earlier novel, A Dutiful Daughter , which was also much more horrific. There, children had to cope with parents who turned into physical monsters; and the son declared that moral blindness towards 'freaks'...
(The entire section is 1,724 words.)