Thomas Keneally Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Veronica Brady

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Andrew Motion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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