Thomas Keneally

"The Tyrant's Novel"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 29, 2006)

In this novel within a novel, Australian author Thomas Keneally returns to the political themes which won him prizes for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Voices from the Forest, and Schindler's Ark. Keneally has always been at his best depicting ordinary people facing extraordinary pressures, especially from governments bent on totalitarian rule, and this contemporary allegory is no exception. Taking place in an unnamed oil-rich country in the Middle East ruled by a tyrant who calls himself Great Uncle, the novel centers on a man calling himself "Alan Sheriff," a short story writer given one month to write an "autobiographical novel" for which Great Uncle will take full credit. Sheriff, we learn in the opening chapter, is telling his story to a western journalist from a detention camp in an unnamed desert country, where he has languished for three years.

Keneally increases the impact and universality of the story through his clever use of western names. As Alan Sheriff tells the journalist, it is important for his credibility in the west that he be like a man you'd meet on the street, which is much easier with a name like Alan--"not, God help us, Said and Osama and Saleh. If we had Mac instead of Ibn." Alan believes his "saddest and silliest story" will interest Americans, despite the fact that his country and the US are now enemies.

Through Alan's story, the reader meets Mrs. Douglas, whose nephew, not careful enough of the pH level of Great Uncle's swimming pool, has been shot and hanged from the ramparts; Mrs. Carter, whose son has been missing for six years; Alan's beloved wife, Sarah Manners, an actress who has become unemployable; Matt McBride, another writer who becomes head of the Cultural Commission where he works for Great Uncle; and Louise James, an American who would like to get Sheriff to come to Texas as a visiting professor. All these characters contribute to a stunning conclusion as Sheriff tries to write the required novel.

Easily the best Keneally novel in over a decade, this serious and thoughtful novel has significant political ramifications. The characters are "ordinary people," much like the rest of us, caught in extreme situations, and Keneally builds up enormous suspense as the long tentacles of the tyrant grab everyone in their path. Though most readers will recognize the unnamed country and the tyrant, it is a tribute to Keneally that their specific identities are totally irrelevant to his themes and plot. The author makes it clear that a government's manipulation of the people's perceptions through staged events is not limited to the Third World.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Tyrant's Novel at Nan A. Talese

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"Office of Innocence"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 16, 2003)

"We're a race that deserves punishment."

On a night "when the relentlessness of destiny, the unarguable nature of punishment, seemed written on the air," Father Frank Darragh, a young Australian curate attached to St. Margaret's Church in the outskirts of Sydney, finally confronts the horrors of World War II, as the Japanese infiltrate Sydney harbor and fire upon Australian ships, instantly killing dozens of innocent and unsuspecting men. But the physical punishment men wreak upon each other during warfare is only one of Father Frank's concerns at this moment. He is also facing a crisis involving man's spiritual health as he ponders whether any sin, committed deliberately or without repentance, can be excused if its purpose is to effect a greater good, be it in warfare, within the confines of a marriage and family, or within the church. Good and evil, sin and penance, and forgiveness and punishment are major themes here, as a young priest's faith and commitment are tested to their limits.

Read excerptHaving entered a seminary just out of high school, long before he was ever subjected to the physical and spiritual temptations of the real world, Father Frank Darragh is a young innocent, whose ability to serve his parishioners effectively may be limited by his naivete. As Monsignor Carolan, his superior, remarks, "Everything he does flows out of his innocence…. What'll happen to him when he meets real people?"

Fr. Frank soon finds out, as he becomes exposed to the real world through the stories he hears in the confessional. A young Australian soldier confesses that he went to a party with a transvestite and performed an "indecent act," something that confounds Fr. Frank, whose experience of sin is confined to what he's learned in Moral Theology, and who believes that "surely the footnotes of extreme perversion belong to Europe, to the French, say," a punishment of God because the French army collapsed during the war. A young monk confesses to the sexual abuse of a child, while a woman dying of tuberculosis admits to living with her husband and her lover under the same roof, a fact that she does not repent. Kate Heggarty, a young mother to whom he himself is somewhat attracted, confesses that though she intends to "remain innocent" while her husband is a prisoner of war, that she will entertain another man in order to get enough food for herself and her child.

A black American soldier admits he's been AWOL, living with a white woman he wishes to marry. Though the soldier believes he's a sinner, he's afraid of the punishment which will be meted out to him by the army for having refused to remain in his place: "I want a confession," he says. "In here I'm [only] a sinner. Once I step out, I'm Jesus Christ on the cross."

In all these situations, the conscientious Fr. Frank wrestles to define what sin really is and what his responsibility is in bestowing absolution. His own faith, however, is sorely tested when Kate Heggarty, the young mother for whom he feels affection, is murdered, and he himself becomes a focus of the investigation. Ultimately, he must face the biggest challenge of all-what to do when the murderer reveals himself in the secrecy of the confessional.

Though there is plenty of action here, Keneally is concerned primarily with his study of what constitutes moral goodness and what punishments are appropriate for sins. The young priest's crisis of faith is presented vividly and may evolve from Keneally's own serious study, if not his experience. Keneally himself entered the seminary in 1952, right out of high school, and studied for the priesthood for many years. In Homebush Boy, his memoir about that crucial year, he describes himself as rather naïve, "the sort of kid men took aside for serious talks." An excellent writer, a good athlete, a loyal friend, and a devout communicant, he was attracted to the peaceful and contemplative life of the monastery when he and his friends were invited by local priests to attend a series of retreats. He remained in the seminary for almost ten years, leaving just prior to ordination.

With this background, Keneally would certainly be familiar with the mindset of the innocent young priest and the moral quandaries in which such a priest might find himself. Though Keneally brings Fr. Frank Darragh's ethical challenges to life, Father Frank himself is somewhat less fully realized. His extreme goodness and his lack of experience in the real world limit the reader's ability to identify with him fully. His superiors in the church are both bureaucratic and parochial in their outlook, and they remain undeveloped as individuals. Fortunately, the other subordinate characters, most of them "sinners," are more memorable with all their flaws and faults, and their dialogue and slang are both plainspoken and honest.

Keneally firmly grounds his novel in place and time. Australia during World War II has not been the subject of many novels, and I was fascinated by the descriptions of how the local populace responded to the Japanese threats and attacks. His description of children putting tennis ball halves over their ears to protect them during bombings, of adolescents and "inconvenient uncles" living "verandah lives" on sleeping porches at the back of houses, of Fr. Frank's mother and aunt fixing Sunday dinners of gristly lamb, and of the patriotic response of the populace to the need for volunteers are vivid, giving life to the narrative.

Ultimately, Fr. Frank must grow up, both theologically and realistically. "He had been wrongheaded enough, he confessed to himself, to think that to be a fool for Christ was better than to be wise after the manner of this earth....You could not act on some ill-advised fervor and then expect sensible men and women to accept your explanation for it, so that you were left justifying a high school debater." Father Frank's life changes dramatically during the novel, and Keneally's conclusions about what makes a moral life may surprise his readers.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Office of Innocence

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About the Author:

Thomas KeneallyThomas Keneally was born in Sydney, Australia in 1935. He completed schooling at various schools on the New South Wales north coast before commencing theological studies for the Catholic priesthood. He abandoned this vocation in 1960 and turned to clerical work and teaching school before publication of his first novel in 1964. Since that time he has been a full-time writer with the odd stint as lecturer (1969-70) and writer in residence.

Short-listed for the Booker Prize on 4 occasions, in 1972 for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, in 1975 for Gossip from the Forest, and in 1979 for Confederates, he finally won the prize in 1982 for Shindler's Ark (which was made into Steven Spielberg's Oscar winning movie Schinder's List). He has won the major Australian literary award, the Miles Franklin Award twice with Bring Larks and Heroes and Three Cheers for the Paraclete. In 1983 Thomas Keneally was awarded the Order of Australia for his services to Australian Literature.

Thomas Keneally and his wife reside in Sydney and they have two daughters. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014