Thomas Keneally

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Keneally, Thomas 1935–

An Australian novelist, Keneally is an ex-seminarian of Irish-Catholic descent. Best known for his Blood Red, Sister Rose, a retelling of the Joan of Arc legend, Keneally has been praised both for his realistic characterizations and his use of history. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 10, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Anthony Thwaite

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[In "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith"] Thomas Keneally has chosen an actual incident—in 1900, when the disparate [Australian] states were rapidly but uneasily moving toward federation—around which to weave a powerful and disturbing fiction: the growth of a half-caste young man, Jimmie Blacksmith, from Methodist "mission black" to murderer and outlaw. Here are the trappings of "In Cold Blood"—rural isolation, slaughter, manhunt—but the impulse, the motivations and, most important, Keneally's highly charged and distinctive style are quite different.

Jimmie has been sharpened yet confused, made ambitious yet is uprooted, by the thin nurture of Christianity and other Western notions. Behind him lie the impoverished and debased lives of such people as his uncle Tabidgi and his half-brother Mort; yet Keneally sets in high relief the inheritance they represent, in their instinctive poetry and in the immensities of their own religion. Left to themselves, they would have worked out their destinies….

At best patronized, at worst cheated and wronged in every conceivable mean-minded way, [Jimmie] is ready to wreak havoc…. Gradually the question occurs to him—does he not have "a license to run mad" in view of the cruelties he has suffered from white men? Goaded to blind fury, the answer is yes….

Jimmie and his half-brother go off on a "walkabout" that leaves in its wake a trail of further murders. Outlawed, haunted both by his tribal inheritance and some relics of the "poor-bugger-white-fella-son-of-God-got nailed" still attached to him, Jimmie and Mort track and scavenge across the huge territories of New South Wales. Keneally's account of this hopeless odyssey is exciting and chilling: the battle—with human malevolence, with spiritual fear, with the remorseless natural world—is real, not the daydream stuff of, say, James Dickey's "Deliverance," in which the problems and struggles are neat and bland.

Keneally has many incidental portraits and encounters which add to the rich curiousness of his story. (p. 3)

Thomas Keneally has blended history, psychological insight and an epic adventure with great skill. "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" echoes in the head long after it has been put down. (p. 24)

Anthony Thwaite, "'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 27, 1972, pp. 3, 24.

The Times Literary Supplement

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

If we think of "the mythology of Australian history" in terms of imaginative fiction, one name springs instantly to mind: Patrick White. With Voss and The Tree of Man he mapped out a territory which seemed to be peculiarly his own. Anyone else working the same ground could scarcely help but appear as an imitator. So it's particularly interesting to see a talented writer like Thomas Keneally staking his claim in the White territory.

Mr. Keneally's [The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith] … is set in rural New South Wales at the turn of the century and seems to shadow White at several points, though it may simply be that, handling the same sort of material (farming life, and the social flux of a century still in process of completion), there is an overlapping of documentary detail, plus a focusing on the mythological features of the period. But they have something else in common—a painter's eye, a humane particularity of observation….

The narrative moves along at a compelling pace, but the finer points of...

(This entire section contains 208 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

characterization and relationship are never sacrificed to the demands of the action.

"Over the Fence," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3680, September 15, 1972, p. 1041.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

A Victim of the Aurora, a detective story concerned with homosexuality on a polar expedition, demonstrates that the author is wholly out of his métier, raises serious questions about his literary capacity and denies most assuredly the publisher's claim that "Keneally has never written with greater eloquence or authority." In all essential elements the novel suggests carelessness or decline in construction and composition: characterization is sketchy and ineffectual; description is fitful, inadequate and lacking in precision or detail; language is repetitive, void of the customary flashes of beauty and poetry; plot is contrived, often unexplained and unconvincing because too contrived. The elements of the baroque that marked some of the author's earlier work reappear, as do several attempts at pretentiousness, such as a torturous quasi-psychological analysis of the Hamlet-like motivation of one of the characters.

The book is marred by numerous insertions of "filler" that Keneally presumably feels is unknown to his readers, by inadvertent shifts from British to American usage … and inaccurate cultural information that should provide plausibility. He suggests that before World War II British upper-class speech and behavior were unknown to the lower classes…. A Victim of the Aurora is a great disappointment, a sad decline from the artistry of Bring Larks and Heroes and Jimmie Blacksmith.

Alan L. McLeod, "Australia: 'A Victim of the Aurora'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn, 1978, p. 690.

Chris Tiffin

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Race relations in Australia's past, and, by implication, present are the accepted theme of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and discussion of the novel, whatever success it is seen to have, has started from this assumption. There are, however, two further ways in which the book needs to be seen to appreciate how it explores beyond the social-racial level, and to pinpoint more accurately the role of Keneally as narrator. The first of these approaches is to set the Blacksmith story against that of its historical prototypes, the Governor brothers; the second is to see Jimmie not as fictional black or half-caste, but as the most successfully drawn of Keneally's recurrent sensitive, oppressed, ultimately self-destructive victims.

Keneally has stated he drew upon contemporary newspapers…. A more proximate source, however, which seems to have had considerable impact on the novel, is the retelling of the Governor story by Frank Clune. (p. 121)

[Keneally] adopted more than just the bones of the story without alteration. The changes he made are of three types—racial, narrative, and psychological or thematic. In the first place Joe, a half-caste and Jimmy's full brother, becomes Morton, a full-blood and Jimmie's half-brother. The result of this is an increase in Jimmie's isolation from both the black and the white world; it shows him to be as excluded from the tribal beliefs as he is from the community espousing the white values. The black religion he uneasily dismisses as "horseshit" …, and seeks purposeful life in the alternative values of possession…. Jimmie's plight as half-caste is, in fact, worse than it would be as a full-blood, for his white side gives him the awareness that Keneally associates with the desire for possessions—the desire to "improve" himself. While there are obvious advantages for the fiction itself in using Mort as a way to highlight Jimmie's tribal side, there is a further point in its use. Clune's account of the Governor killings is far from a simply factual one, and he enthusiastically condemns them as "murderous curs—slayers only of women, children and old men". Moreover, he specifically rejects any extenuation for the Governors on the grounds that they were blacks retaliating racial wrongs. They were not really blacks at all, says Clune, but half-castes. Clune's complete withdrawal of sympathy on this point prompts Keneally's dwelling upon it and his elaborate use of Mort and Tabidgi to enshrine the tribal beliefs and customs from which Jimmie is partly distanced yet by which he is partly still entrapped. Mort and Tabidgi kill instinctively and impulsively when they are placed by Jimmie in killing situations, and their response to killing is instinctive horror. Jimmie is more conscious; he has insights into what he is doing even as he wields axe or gun, with the result that his horror at his own actions is far more complex. It is as though Keneally associates Jimmie's racial dislocation with a moral awareness. The whites are never called upon to answer for their crimes or examine their motives. Mort and Jackie are incapable of the self-exploration necessary for Keneally's particular idea of hell. Only Jimmie is sufficiently self-conscious, disadvantaged, dislocated, and imposed upon to be made coherently desperate. (pp. 122-23)

Inevitably, there are numerous small narrative changes from the Governors' story to the Blacksmiths', but two are important enough to warrant mention. The first is the capture of Jimmy Governor, who was taken sleeping by a fire, not in a convent; the second is the protracted incident of the hostage McCreadie. Keneally's version of the capture allows him to encapsulate the earlier religious parallels in the book and to insinuate into the paralleled rebirth ceremonies of Easter and tribal initiation, the further idea of initiation into guilt. Keneally opens the novel with a reference to Jimmie's initiation tooth, and later makes explicit the parallel between that initiation wound and the wound he receives from the marksman. Here in the delirium it becomes associated with the actual moment Jimmie fell from grace, or perhaps that at which he reached his greatest moral degradation….

Thus the finale in the convent is a "hell" in a theological sense, for Jimmie is tortured not only by the pain in his mouth but also by the knowledge and memory of his guilt. (p. 124)

The introduction of McCreadie into the Blacksmith story is Keneally's most daring gambit, because it exposes the Blacksmiths' psychology over a considerable time and in close detail. Until McCreadie enters, the story has been basically episodic with no sustained and close study of a changing relationship. Keneally has been able to sketch brief incidents, bear in upon them for the insight or irony he wants to portray, then move on to the next. "The McCreadie-Blacksmith connection", Keneally's own phrase, is more than just such an incident. Psychologically it allows for a richer presentation of the tensions between Mort and Jimmie as they flee, and provides a ready method of exposing Jimmie's need for some self-image to conform to. But McCreadie also acts as spokesman for the wider historical view of the Aboriginal in Australia, a role Clune could take but which is impossible for Keneally's narrative viewpoint without excessively excusing Jimmie…. The events (as depicted) of Jimmie Blacksmith's career, the historical facts supplied by McCreadie, the abuses of Senior Constable Farrell, the cautions and doubts in Mr Neville's rejected letter to a church paper, and the exuberant optimism of officially egalitarian Australia are the chief elements Keneally presents as modern Australia's birthright.

The third set of changes Keneally makes on the original are concerned with the motives of the participants. Predictably, perhaps, these are designed to make Jimmie more attractive and to undercut or at least neutralize his opponents. Jimmy Governor's motives for the killings are obscure, although the trial records seem to indicate that the most substantial reason was retaliation for ridicule both of himself and of Ethel about their marriage…. At any rate, whatever prompted the original killings, Keneally's Jimmie Blacksmith is much more severely provoked and is made much more dignified in his response to that provocation than is his prototype in the newspaper accounts Keneally drew on, while Clune allows scant dignity to "the yellow cur". After the event, similarly, Clune shows Jimmy Governor calculatingly and without compunction implicating Joe, whereas Keneally's Jimmie struggles, falls, then achieves salvation on this very issue, as I shall argue shortly.

If not as moving, at least more entertaining are the changes made to the other characters, their motives and psychologies…. There is none so sustained in the book, however, nor so splendidly executed as the schoolmistress's fiancé, Herbert Byers or as Keneally portrays him, Dowie Stead. (pp. 124-26)

There is no element of the original story which Keneally undercuts more than the retributive zeal of Herbert Byers. Sometimes his alterations become almost a satire on Clune's own moral comment, as though the proximity of Clune's account to the present makes its attitudes more real targets than the now forgotten horror of the Sydney Mail or the Mudgee Guardian…. One can admire the deftness with which the melodramatic gesture of a conventional lover is undercut, and respond to Keneally's superb satire of the self-aggrandizement that all except Mr Newby draw from the catastrophe. But the problem remains that this satire is supported and maintained at the expense of any compunction for the deaths themselves, which become events or details almost as minor and simply functional as the introduction of the Squatters' Club…. To kill off half the Newby family in order to show that the other half become swept up in the rhetoric of the event—"They were insatiable for words like monstrous, unspeakable, black butchers" …—is, even for a fiction-writer, a curious manner of proceeding.

To some extent the explanation, but not the solution, of this problem lies in the context in which Keneally is writing…. Keneally's retelling is in part a polemic against the Clune version, which had left Jimmy in fact worse off than the "savages" attitude at the time of the events; and with such a strong focus on the rehabilitation of Jimmie, the fact of the murders is minimized as much as possible.

But the recurrence of casually treated violent death in Keneally's novels is too pervasive for any single instance to be satisfactorily accounted for by contextual explanations. It has been noted frequently, and even where it is not noted it is sometimes responsible for a discomfort and even a querulousness which readers feel with Keneally. On the face of it, Keneally simply delights in violent death, and it has been suggested that Keneally himself is Ted Knoller in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. There are, however, more cogent reasons for Keneally's constant return to this motif…. Keneally is fascinated by the tenuousness by which physical man maintains his hold on life, and by extension, the ease by which one man can destroy another's life…. The ease of death and of causing death must be reinstated as a factor in our concept of life, although we have become progressively insulated from a sense of the imminence of death. But this is only the ultimate manifestation of a condition that Keneally sees operating in all human consciousness, and it is in this that his interest in death finds meaning.

Keneally continually sees human relationships in terms of dominance and vulnerability. When people interact they play out a more or less tangible power struggle, and the situations in Keneally in which people exercise control or power over others are far more important than those which depict lateral or co-operative relationships. (pp. 127-31)

[The] central ambivalence in Keneally is his inability to decide whether human certitude is more comic or more diabolically sinister. The victim is aware of the power to which he is subject, tries for a time to resist or circumvent it, hankers after the certitude that seems to underlie it, and eventually precipitates self-destruction with some degree of self-awareness. One course this takes is for the victim to seek power himself, for the Keneally victim is aware that power not only corrupts, but is corruption. The meek may inherit the earth, but the moment they try to do so their meekness is forfeited and thus their claim. The rewards handed out in Keneally novels are meagre indeed.

This pattern of human relations needs to be borne in mind when approaching The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, for it modifies some of the conclusions reached by reading the novel, as it usually is read, as one concerned overwhelmingly with race problems. Jimmie is as much a radical, underprivileged victim as he is a racial victim, and the novel has as much to say about power, vulnerability, and guilt as it has to say about Australian racism.

Jimmie's goals in life as he articulates them to himself at the outset of his career are possessions….

[He] fails to realize that possessions alone do not make for the beatitude he seeks. It is possessions and power, and power can only be manifest in its exercise upon someone like himself. So his employers' continual attacks upon his plan for self-improvement are not random and gratuitous, for the dominant are not independent of those they control. Jimmie does not come to this insight directly or suddenly, but it is implicit in his speculations about the necessity to "declare war" which "connoted for him a sweet wide freedom—to hate, discredit, debase as an equal"…. Although Jimmie has not yet abandoned his economic plan, other considerations are emerging as important to his psychic well-being.

Keneally's treatment of the killings enforces the idea of command as much as it does hate or retaliation. (p. 134)

The remainder of Jimmie's career continues his quest to find ways of maintaining the control and authority which is continually sapped from him. The abstract power of anonymously shooting an equally anonymous farmer is rejected as "too fanciful a gesture"…. Although Keneally himself is much given to abstract formulations of that sort, such as the genetic symmetry of the double copulation earlier, Jimmie has little use for abstractions which he cannot convert into an immediate sense of authority. But Jimmie's problem is that as soon as he does enter into specific human situations he finds he becomes subject because he lacks the certitude which underpins the irony or easy superiority he sees behind other men's eyes. Jimmie cannot help revealing himself as victim. From his point of view the world is peopled with men who refuse to demonstrate a weakness which allows him to gain a psychological foothold…. This axiomatic deprivation is imaged throughout the novel in vignettes which show Jimmie on foot confronted by a horseman. (p. 135)

There is, however, one scene in which we do see a Blacksmith mounted (apart from Mort's insouciant horse-breaking). This is Jimmie's raid on Verona with Farrell in search of the killer of Jack Fisher. It is an important incident, for it demonstrates the effect that power has. It was argued above that in Keneally's novels the dominant continually exercise their dominance. A corollary of this is that the powerless seek out their punishment, at least when seen from the point of view of the powerful. Man's psychic vulnerability is every bit as manifest as his physical vulnerability, and the only defence against one's own sense of threat is to impose upon others. Hence Jimmie's attempt to align himself with power demands a furious attack on weakness in others. (pp. 135-36)

Characters in Keneally often record a sense of impact rather than pain, just as Jimmie does earlier when struck by Healy. The fatalism of Mort's final thoughts, though, suggest that Keneally sees the imposition of man on man as an eternal verity which goes far beyond whatever social remedies may be initiated to right particular types of deprivation. Nor has he any solution for or even distraction from it. It can, I think, be argued that a sort of macabre cosmic power-psychology is what serves Keneally for a religious centre. Certainly, considering the interest in religious scenes and situations in the novels, he is a surprisingly a-religious writer…. While white religion in Keneally is usually a misnomer for humanism or a rationale for bureaucracy, he does give considerable treatment to the parallel truths of the Mungindi and Christian. Typically, the outcome of this is an ethical demonstration rather than a theological one. Jimmie's need to establish dominance to achieve beatitude does not extend to his half-brother Mort. He needs Mort, but sets against his need for him the consciousness of Mort's values, even though they are values to which Jimmie himself can no longer subscribe. The focus of this tension is on Jimmie's desire to retain Mort's company and assistance even though he, Jimmie, in slaying women has become "incurable"…. [Mort] retains "his nearly intact black soul" … which Jimmie is required to relinquish if he is to regain any sort of moral standing. It is significant that an act of renunciation is called for to balance the renunciation of tribe which takes place in Jimmie's frosty baptism at the gaol-house pump. Mort, in tribal integrity, loves in an active way; Jimmie, in the ethic of thou-shalt-not, can love only by renunciation.

Jimmie's aim at setting out had been to become "Mr Black-smith". He is called that by the Newby women, but not out of respect or acceptance in the way he craves. Far more important, though, is the authorial use of the title…. There are only five uses of the full title, and they provide ironical comments on Jimmie's initial hopes of status, and the manner in which the status is ultimately earned…. [The] final two uses, both at the Aboriginal initiation site, mark his rehabilitation. McCreadie is the catalyst to effect his salvation…. McCreadie's task of separating the brothers has both the practical dimension of ending their flight, for he sees they depend upon each other (and on him) to keep going, and the underlying one of providing each with salvation, Mort's negatively by removing the source of corruption, and Jimmie's positively by requiring of him a loving renunciation. McCreadie puts this to Jimmie, and in his acceptance of it he is termed "Mr Jimmie Blacksmith" for the last time. Ironically, he gains his title finally not through accession of power over another, but through surrendering it.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, then, continues the analysis of the mind of oppressed victims, aspects of which were explored in The Fear, Bring Larks and Heroes, Three Cheers for the Paraclete, and A Dutiful Daughter, and since in Blood Red, Sister Rose. Keneally's victims manifest a sensitivity which makes them more susceptible to the inevitable attacks. They recognize their oppressors, whether individuals or systems, but cannot understand the malignant assault on their unprovocative weakness, not realizing that weakness itself is always provocative to power. If they come to any such realization, and not all do, they precipitate their own destruction through an act that simplifies the tensions and ambiguities of their existence at the expense of existence itself. Jimmie Blacksmith the victim is every bit as important as Jimmie Blacksmith the half-caste, for human vulnerability and its immoral exorcism through the wielding of power is a theme that extends far beyond the specific example of Australian racism. Jimmie is vulnerable because he is coloured in a white society, but fundamentally he is vulnerable simply because he is human. As always in Keneally, to be human is to maintain a tenuous and temporary hold on physical existence and psychic wholeness. Moreover, the most proximate enemy to one's stability is one's fellow man. Jimmie and Gilda may be at the bottom of the pile, but those further up, like Healy and Newby and the sarcastic cook, are in the same continuum, and like Jimmie can defend their own vulnerability only by attacking weakness in others. If undermining is one of the recurrent words in the book, another is blunt. For Keneally, personalities do not interact so much as bludgeon. (pp. 137-40)

Chris Tiffin, "Victims Black and White: Thomas Keneally's 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'," in Studies in the Recent Australian Novel, edited by K. G. Hamilton (© University of Queensland Press, 1978), University of Queensland Press, 1978, pp. 121-40.

Veronica Brady

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Thomas Keneally has always aimed at high seriousness. His works reveal an epic ambition, attempting to reconcile with domestic reality the consciousness of some larger life beyond the self. Unlike many Australian writers, he has been less concerned to work out a personal myth than to come to terms with a more general sense of the self as Australian, suspended between belonging and alienation, between the realities of an Australia which is, in culture, English-speaking, and of, on the other hand, an Australia which is, in geographic fact, Asian and alien, barbarous, splendid and unanswerably, its own place. For this reason he has always been a writer who mattered, even when he is writing too much too quickly or when, as in the novels since The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, he no longer seems directly concerned with Australia or Australians. The abiding concerns and, above all, the sense of reality which he derives from his sense of himself as an Australian remain. Indeed, these later novels seem to be more, not less, filled with the sense of alienation, of dislocated vision which he characterises as typical of Australians, the more so because as the physical environment itself has disappeared the peculiar menace it embodies grows stronger.

Certainly, in Keneally's own work, the humane and artistic sense has always been under pressure. His first novel, The Fear, describes a childhood beset not only by a sense of the land as a sacred place of mingled fear and attraction, but also by monstrous ideologies, Communism and Catholicism, competing for the boy's allegiance. In the novels which followed, the struggle continues between savagery and humane values and recently—since The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, in which some sense of humanity, however beleaguered, still prevailed—the savagery seems to have won. This is a new departure. The fight seems to have gone out of his characters: the note now is surrender. In Blood Red, Sister Rose and Gossip From the Forest, for example, the protagonists, Joan of Arc and Matthias Erzeberger, the German plenipotentiary sent to make the Armistice of 1918, are mere victims. They go, as one of the German officers remarks of Erzeberger, like the 'bull to be pole-axed'. Nor is there any real tragic sense to this destruction. Brute necessity prevails. Self-consciousness is at a minimum in these characters; what remains and pervades their stories is the melancholy consciousness which takes a grim pleasure in putting an end to illusions of happiness and even more significantly, to the search for human justice.

This new turn in Keneally's work is interesting, I think, not only for its own sake but also for what it implies for an understanding of what seems to be happening in Australia and to Australians today. In the first place, turning away from Australian settings is significant…. [What] the turning away from Australia represents is a failure not only of imagination, but also of hope in the possibilities which Australia represents. Without the countervailing set of values embodied in the land as it figures in the earlier novels, the uneasiness with human feeling and even the suspicion of the whole civilised enterprise, which also underlies the Australian experience, throws his work off balance. (pp. 74-5)

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith marks the parting of the ways. Jimmie was destroyed precisely because he had learned the ways of white Australia so well. For him, typically Australian, 'possession was a sacred state' and in effect the women he kills are sacrifices offered up at this shrine. Unable to possess them or the propertied beatitude which that possession entails, he sets his mark on them by killing them, only to be hunted down in his turn so that society's complacencies may remain unquestioned. When he comes on the profaned sacred place of his Aboriginal people he is no longer at home there…. [He] thus represents the end of the struggle which Keneally sees as central to the work of making an Australian culture, the 'struggle to become spiritual possessors' of the land and of what it represents…. Blood Red, Sister Rose marks another transition. It is a thesis novel, but although the setting is European and the subject the story of Joan of Arc, the thesis is as pertinent to Australia, more pertinent perhaps than to a France in which Joan of Arc has become the embodiment of national value. History here is a record of defeat rather than of triumph. So Keneally comes to the traditional story determined not to confirm but to blaspheme against accepted pieties. His Joan is also an outrageous figure, determined to challenge the rules and traditions of chivalry in society as well as in war. His Joan is thus—he says it himself—an Australian version of the French heroine, and her predicament reflects a tension central to a culture in which relationships to history on the one hand and to the environment on the other remain ambivalent…. Underplaying … the drama of consciousness and of choice which lies at the heart of the traditional story, Keneally also makes it less interesting…. The thrust of the book is sceptical, therefore, to discredit belief in the myths Joan's story usually serves, the myths of the nation and of religion. Ironically, Joan, the ikon of French religious nationalism, becomes an iconoclast. At the same time, however, she is herself shaped by the forces of history as much as their shaper…. [Paradoxically] it is when Keneally seems to have done with religious orthodoxy that his novels become most didactic. By nature an allegorist, a man with a strong moral instinct, in the earlier work the scepticism by which he protected himself from the religious inheritance which threatened to overwhelm him played also upon all other ideologies he encounters…. The sense of isolation, of evil as something which may begin within the self, at least prevents him from projecting evil on to something external and definable, and keeps open the possibility of choice, a possibility which has largely disappeared from [the] later novels…. [In] the novels from Blood Red, Sister Rose onwards, the characters do not even struggle against their destiny: distinctions between Catholic and Protestant, indeed, become meaningless as belief gives way to a one-dimensional sense of reality. All that is left of the sacred is the sense of violence. (pp. 76-9)

If Keneally remains a moralist, in these recent works, then, morality amounts to little more than owning up, accepting one's implication in the evils of a pitiless and inhumane world…. What excitement is left is the excitement of sensation rather than thought. Unable to reconstruct the world imaginatively, the novelist seems to give up hope for it, distracting himself from disappointment by the pleasures of outrage, brooding on a complex of injured and disappointed feelings, his own and his readers'. The type of the hero thus becomes the bitter survivor, exemplified by the man in A Victim of the Aurora who survives alone in the Antarctic, having been left behind by a previous expedition, to exercise an exemplary power over everyone in the New British South Polar Expedition…. (pp. 80-1)

[Weeping] and cursing pervades these last five novels and gives them the only real energy they have, the energy of the barbarian in Borges' 'Story of the Warrior and the Captive', spirited, innocent, cruel, loyal to his captain and his tribe, but not to the universe. (p. 81)

In these novels there is nothing left to hope for except extinction. The result is reductive, the kind of homogenisation of experience we are learning to grow familiar with in this country but which perhaps underlies the mood of sullen cautiousness which prevails throughout the Western world….

[The] dialectical tension which made Keneally's first novels so exciting as they swung between hope and despair, belief and unbelief, has now given way to a kind of structural nihilism. The story line of these novels flows away from the possibilities of action towards the knowledge of defeat and disillusionment, with a resultant flattening of character and interest…. But to say this is not necessarily to accuse him of inhumanity; rather, perhaps, of its excess. Once again, Keneally reflects the Australian predicament. Uncertain of himself and of his society—as distinct from the physical environment which, in fact, increases this uncertainty—he is compelled to look outside himself for justification, observing differences and claiming superiorities, yet drawing his sustenance mainly from feelings of condemnation and contempt. But these feelings tend to be based on misunderstanding. In his account of European wars and corruption in these recent novels, Keneally's imagination seems overwhelmed by what is manifest, the cruelties and corruptions of civilisation, but largely ignorant of what lies beneath the surface, concern for individuals and the ordinary pleasurable paraphernalia of their lives.

The extremity of his vision damages his art more than the evils he is attacking. (pp. 81-2)

Let me be clear, however, about the nature of my objection to [Keneally's development]. It is not directed against the pessimism of what he has to say. On the contrary, the melancholy truth may be that he has captured the truth of our time only too well. My objection is rather to the effects of his pessimism upon form and language. Essentially dejected in tone, these works seem to have given up on that quest for the sources of human behaviour and value which is what matters in the novel, not the mere reflection of a current mood. Great art may come from disillusionment and despair, but that disillusionment and despair must be full-bodied—as Keneally's is not. The tone of these novels does not reflect the nature of the enormities they describe; having learned to sup with horrors, he appears to have become bored with the menu. To use Coleridge's distinction, they are works of fancy rather than imagination, accepting what is given rather than reimagining and thus renewing it. This means a surrender of individual initiative. Now that God is dead man seems to be dying also, leaving necessity in charge of the world.

This is most evident in the latest novel, A Victim of the Aurora…. Dissent, which earlier in Keneally's work was a means of grace, now appears only as a self-destructive gesture. (p. 84)

Opting for simplification of this kind, Keneally's work has lost the complexity which gave it its peculiar quality of intellectual and psychic excitement. Where a thick swathe of metaphor and allusion once electrified character and situation, the tone is now flat, almost documentary. The account of Halloran's death in Bring Larks and Heroes, for example, gave dramatic point to his death, combining as it did images of flight, light and space, resonant with traditional religious overtones, with the crude realities of hanging. So, too, at the end of Jimmie Blacksmith's story, the ironies implicit in the description of the Easter celebrations of Federation while Jimmie sits in his cell waiting for execution give point to the anger, turning it against Australian society…. It is possible to argue, of course, that the excitement generated by this collision of the religious with the secular is spurious. Yet without it, the later novels merely peter out. The drabness of tone and lack of a conclusion to the action merely underline the point they are making that in human affairs it is a long way from promise to fulfilment. Events and relationships are merely recounted, not questioned or explored, reduced rather than intensified, and brought down by the levelling pressures of determinism. The boredom which ensues is symptomatic, proceeding as it does from a determination not to take risks. In art, as in life, people become a means to an end. Joan of Arc, Matthias Erzeberger, David Pelham and Anthony Piers are not very interesting characters, being used less for their own sake than to fit the didactic pattern of the novel, and it is this pattern, not the complexities of their lives, which seems to engage the novelist's allegiance.

Having renounced the religious ideology with which he was preoccupied in his first novels, it seems that Keneally still cannot do without ideology, is still apparently so distrustful of his own intuitions that he continues to need an intellectual map to guide emotion and perception. Yet the scope of the new map is narrower than the earlier one since it leaves out imponderables like love, justice and goodness, to concentrate on what is empirically evident and verifiable…. [While] the imponderables still retain their place in human experience, to deny them is to circumscribe one's art quite seriously, particularly if one credits Pelham's gloomy prediction in A Season in Purgatory that 'history is on the side of the commissars'…. If this is so, then it seems all the more necessary to explore what possibilities there may be for the individual life…. [Instead of] attempting to get to the roots of the strange perversity of human beings which has always been his special concern, Keneally's imagination seems to have contracted, content, seemingly, to receive from life what he has come to expect, disappointment. This is a loss for literature. It also reflects a situation of loss for life…. This world ruled by force from which the self is fugitive, penned up in 'some guerilla headquarters in the unconscious' may reflect where we are. If so, it is not an appealing goal for the future. It remains that the most frightening rebellion is that of those like Keneally with the habit of obedience. (pp. 84-6)

Veronica Brady, "The Most Frightening Rebellion: The Recent Novels of Thomas Keneally," in Meanjin, Vol. 38, No. 1, April, 1979, pp. 74-86.

Andrew Motion

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

History intimidates fiction. It threatens the play of the imagination by confronting it with unavoidable facts, and obtrudes actual incidents upon provocative inventions. But history, of course, also aids and abets fiction. It encourages a proper attention to detail and character by insisting that, in spite of its enormous scale, it is in reality a mosaic of related fragments and individuals. Thomas Keneally is well aware of this, but it does not stop him, in his new novel Confederates, wandering too freely and frequently across the line which divides constrained research from detailed imaginative freedom. As he describes the fortunes of the Northern Virginia Army in 1862—the year in which they had particularly difficult military problems to solve—he veers between giving a moving re-creation of local but representative events, and lapsing into rehearsals of sterile fact. And as if this uncertainty were not enough, Keneally compounds its effects with the very thing he hopes will cure them. Whenever he feels himself likely to be accused of writing a historical account rather than a historical novel, he works himself into an excess of imaginative vigour—usually over some more or less stomach-turning episode. The result is an ambitious but very uneven book which directs most of its interest below the belt. No doubt exalted emotions were few and far between in the ranks of the Confederate army—but here its attempts to form a coherent nation seem to be impelled almost exclusively by lust and diarrhoea….

Throughout Confederates characters are never sure of their own autonomy; they are, Cate tells Usaph, "dead in the heart of history, like currants in a cake", and their moral worth cannot be accurately measured. Cate's apparent punishment by war is not the result of his spiritual inferiority to Usaph, but of his being history's victim. Like the enemies he fights, and the generals he serves, he cannot discover a system of absolute and just principle which relates effects to their causes.

Andrew Motion, "Shenandoah Shenanigans," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4001, November 2, 1979, p. 11.

Edmund Fuller

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[In Passenger, Thomas Keneally] has written the first novel to have its narrator and protagonist in utero throughout: the child in the womb of Sal Fitzgerald. With paradoxical omniscience he tells us all that happens to him, his begetters, and those around him, from the awakening of his awareness in the earliest days of Sal's pregnancy to full term. (p. ii)

This powerfully imagined device works wonderfully well, and we are led at once into a web of conflicts and ambivalences. Irish Sal, a novelist, accepts and cherishes the pregnancy. Brian [the father], Australian born, descendant of an eighteenth-century Irish rebel deported to Australia, is a journalist, an incorrigible womanizer, and is terrified at the idea of parenthood. He confesses to acute "fear of the unborn." From the start he wants this pregnancy terminated.

For the passenger and the reader a tremendous suspense builds up over the safety of this indweller. (pp. ii, iv)

The resolution of this terrifying situation involves the fourth major character, a mysterious man whose stunted stature causes us to know him chiefly as "the Gnome." He is alarming in his first appearances until it is seen that he has a most unexpected role to play in relation to Sal and to her child, who develops the same kind of total awareness of the Gnome, too. Mr. Keneally spins all this into a spellbinding tale, involving variously laughter, fright, and implicit moral judgments. The climactic events occur in Australia. It is a virtuoso performance in style, plotting, and concept….

We are told that in some medical texts the fetus is referred to as "the passenger." In clinical use fetus is a neutral word. In Brian's harsh "Get rid of the fetus," it becomes dismissive of humanity…. "It hasn't got a future," he says. "Not only has it got a future," Sal responds. "It has a present. It has a past." "Oh Jesus," he sneers. "All Celtic again." When the passenger hears such talk: "My legs jerked. My fists clenched. I opened my mouth and a silent, but, I could tell, powerful curse fell on him, on his manhood." Celtic or not, this imagined narrative by the unborn carries powerful moral implications about abortion. (p. iv)

A characteristic in the fiction of our age is the isolation of sex from childbearing—a thoroughly alarming cultural symptom. That is part of what makes unique this extraordinary womb-centered story by Mr. Keneally. It will haunt its readers for a long time. (pp. iv, vi)

Edmund Fuller, "Current Books in Review: 'Passenger'," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1980 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. ii, iv, vi.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[Keneally] has impressed most readers and critics with his incredibly fecund invention and his impressively felicitous phrases in a dozen books written during the same number of years, yet Passenger must surely be his most complexly structured novel…. [But its complexity] may be an impediment to the achievement of its ultimate goal: the elucidation of the relationship of lovers and spouses and of these to "terminal love"—the fetus. Nonetheless, the skill with which events … are handled in both stream-of-consciousness and flashback techniques and made compatible with contemporary narration by a three-ounce fetus, "the reliquary of all the secrets" of his mother, is impressive.

The novelty of the point of view—the omniscience of the "passenger" in "the black duchy of the amnion"—is, of course, remarkable; but it is perhaps too daring, and at times the whole novel seems in jeopardy: caricature, irony and satire seem almost to intrude enough to dispel the tragic and frightening atmosphere and to turn a serious study into a comedy or fantasy. There are, to be sure, eccentric characters…. But the principal characters, with the sole exception of the journalist father ("a studied barbarian," "a man of immured fears"), are developed with care and compassion and provide genuine insights to the ramifications of love, hate, sex and parenthood.

The plot, which is frequently punctuated by gothic episodes, nonetheless reveals the apparently sound experience of the author in both medical and psychological areas no less than his knowledge of the life and culture of England, Ireland, America and Australia, in which sections of the novel take place. Even when he writes of the mental and physical responses of a fetus facing death by drugging or drowning, he writes with so sure a hand that the reader acquiesces in the improbability, buoyed by prose of at times poetic force and beauty. (pp. 332-33)

A. L. McLeod, "Australia: 'Passenger'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1980 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 54, No. 2, Spring, 1980, pp. 332-33.

Jeffrey Burke

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

"Confederates" is exceptional in the Keneally corpus for its American—namely, Civil War—setting, yet typical of an author who has continually challenged his abilities with diverse material….

"Confederates" reaffirms Mr. Keneally's mastery of narrative voice…. With "Confederates,"… it is almost necessary to remind oneself that the author is Australian, so naturally, intrinsically Southern is the narrative voice. Considering the recent glut of such idiom, which national politics has forced into general usage, Mr. Keneally's unobtrusive coloring of dialect and dialogue is all the more remarkable for its absence of false notes….

The idiom is more marked, of course, in a range of speaking characters that includes black slaves, poor Virginia farmers, Louisiana rivermen, Southern aristocrats and the military's rich regional mixture.

The action of the novel is confined to events on the Confederate side of the war during the summer of 1862 and to their effect on four central characters. (p. 3)

[One of the characters], Stonewall Jackson, remains apart from, if not above the fray, a neurotic military professor … recast by war's daily lessons into a leader; keen research lies behind this blending of historical reality and fictional intimacy.

Mr. Keneally also depends on historical fact for the novel's larger elements, such as geography, troop movements, battle sites and tactics, but he embellishes his narrative with the confidence of a novelist who ends his book with a bibliography….

By choosing that period, from spring up through the second battle at Antietam, when everything seemed to favor the South, Mr. Keneally gives "Confederates" a poignance that echoes repeatedly in the ebb and flow of individual fortunes. (p. 28)

Jeffrey Burke, "Novel of War," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 5, 1980, pp. 3, 28.


Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 14)


Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 5)