Woman of the Inner Sea

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his award-winning novel, Schindler’s List (1982; published in Australia and Great Britain as Schindler’s Ark), Thomas Keneally utilizes fiction to explore an inspiring true story—Oskar Schindler’s successful effort to save thousands of Jews from the Nazis. Significantly, the novel opens with an arresting image: the magnificently attired German industrialist in his plush limousine on his way to a dinner with SS officers. The novel consists of a fictional fleshing out of this opening scene and the legendary character of Oskar Schindler. In a very broad sense, Woman of the Inner Sea follows this same pattern. As in the earlier novel, fiction provides the means of exploring the conflicts arising out of an actual incident. A powerful image becomes the basis for a compelling narrative: Kate Gaffney-Kozinski, the protagonist, breaks down in tears when she sees a poster of her uncle, Frank O’Brien, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest. This scene is central to the novel’s framework, for the cyclical structure returns to that image of Kate in the final lines. Although Keneally adopts the fictionalized biographical approach of the earlier novel, Woman of the Inner Sea demonstrates his growth both as a craftsman and as a storyteller. The crisp dialogue and straightforward descriptions may suggest a plain prose style, but the careful reader will discover a subtle and challenging narrative.

Keneally is at his best when dealing with figures of heroic stature, a quality easily discerned in Kate’s personality. She is characterized by Frank as being “a queen of the Sorrows”: He associates her with the tragic Deirdre of Celtic legend. Kate herself seems to concur with this analysis, believing “that the order of the world is loss followed by loss.” Yet Kate was not always the blasted emotional figure that confronts the reader in the opening chapter. Born to a life of privilege and wealth, she would seem to have had an ideal upbringing. Though her father is the prosperous owner of a large cinema chain, the family still embraces its hardworking Irish Catholic values. Her marriage to Paul Kozjnski, whose parents are equally devoted to Catholic tradition, would seem to have been the perfect union: a merger of the family who pioneered the development of the “hypercinema” with the creators of the powerful and feared Kozinski Constructions. The marriage, though, is not a success, for the novel is in part a tale of two families with distinctly different views on religion. The Galfneys are dominated by Kate’s uncle, whom the narrator humorously designates “the not-so-Reverend Frank.” His interests outside the church include illegal gambling and a love affair with a widow, with whom he operates several pubs. The Kozinskis, hardened by their experiences with the Nazis, exhibit a harsher view of religion, symbolized by their devotion to the smoke-stained Black Virgin of Czestochowa.

At the center of this storm is Kate herself. Appropriately, Keneally exploits the connotations of the book’s title. As an apprentice in the film industry, she works as a “gopher” for one of her father’s friends—a title she relishes for its “undertones of unsung cleverness and hidden energy.” Moreover, she regards her role as the mother of two as another form of “gophering”—a “sabbatical” where her “place of retreat” is a secluded beach. It is here that the central incident of the novel occurs, what the narrator terms “the core, the frightful trigger.”

Ironically, it is Kate’s devotion to the traditional, Kozinski brand of motherhood that prompts Paul to begin an obsessive affair with a neighbor’s wife. When Kate breaks her daily routine and accompanies her father to dinner one evening, her children are consumed in a raging fire, a tragedy that Paul blames on his absent wife. She punishes herself through the severe sunburn she acquires while on vacation with her new lover, Murray.

Now physically as well as emotionally scarred, Kate’s response is to go walkabout, to embrace the nomadic life as a search for meaning in her tragedy. In effect, this “queen of the Sorrows” is a heroine on a quest of mythic proportions, one that shapes the novel’s structure. The cycle of departure, adventure, and return to Sydney falls within the larger cycle of the scene that opens and closes the book. Again, Keneally is playing upon the book’s title, for Kate is engaged in yet another form of “gophering”—not only in her new role as barmaid at Murchison’s Railway Hotel but also in the fact that she has gone underground. Her walkabout reflects in part her need to escape the...

(The entire section is 1912 words.)