THOMAS KENEALLY won the Booker Prize in 1982 with SCHINDLER S ARK, later made into the Academy Award-winning film SCHINDLER S LIST by Steven Spielberg. He has written eleven works of non-fiction, including THREE FAMINES and his recent memoir SEARCHING FOR SCHINDLER, and the histories THE COMMONWEALTH OF THIEVES, THE GREAT SHAME and AMERICAN SCOUNDREL, and 29 works of fiction, including THE PEOPLE S TRAIN, THE WIDOW AND HER HERO (both shortlisted for the Prime Minister s Literary Award), AN ANGEL IN AUSTRALIA and BETTANY'S BOOK. His novels THE CHANT OF JIMMY BLACKSMITH, GOSSIP FROM THE FOREST, and CONFEDERATES were all shortlisted for the Booker Prize, while BRING LARKS AND HEROES and THREE CHEERS FOR THE PARACLETE won the Miles Franklin Award. His most recent novel THE PEOPLE S TRAIN was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, South East Asia division.
Here is another departure from the author of such widely diverse books as Confederates, Schindler's List, The Playmaker, and Woman of the Inner Sea. Australian Keneally draws on his immigrant heritage in this turn-of-the-century story of Tim Shea, an Irish storekeeper struggling with his own and society's demons to make a life for his family in New South Wales. Deaths frame the novel: Tim is haunted by the image of a nameless young woman, dead from an abortion, whose severed head is trotted around in a jar by the local constable in an effort to identify her; and after attending to a farmer killed in a gory buggy accident, Tim feels obliged to support the farmer's elder child, Lucy. First regarded as a hero for his quick action after the cart accident, then excoriated publicly for his anti-Boer War sentiments, Tim fears losing his business. A final quarantine after exposure to the black plague ends Tim's tribulations. The Irish/Australian dialect is difficult at first, and the narrative sometimes seems flat despite the often melodramatic events. Nevertheless, this book, which teems with themes from race and class discrimination to the wages of sin, has the flavor of a 19th-century novel, and Keneally may catch the historical saga market with it. [For an in-depth look at River Town and the publishing process, see "The Birth of a Book," on p. 122-124; previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/94.]-Francine Fialkoff, "Library Journal"
Australia at the turn of the century is the setting for Keneally's 21st novel, surely his most masterfully crafted, morally searching and compassionate work. Reflecting a keen and ironic awareness of social injustice, it's a thoroughly gripping story that follows its protagonist over a four-month span as some seemingly unrelated events take on tragic significance and move to a dramatic confluence and a dark night of the soul. Tim Shea, proprietor of a general store in Kempsey, a little river town in New South Wales, is aware that the community is devoid of refinement and amenities. Yet he is disturbed that the severed head of a young woman who died after an abortion is displayed in a glass jar to help the constable learn her identity. He is also dismayed to encounter the same hypocritical social conventions and rigid class stratifications that led him to leave his native Ireland. Yet Tim himself is prejudiced against young Muslim medicine hawker Bandy Habash, who tries to cultivate his good will, and he is only dimly aware of how the aboriginal tribes are scorned and subjugated by the new settlers. Content to be a devoted husband to Kitty and father to two children, a generous businessman and a modest bystander to the community's events, Tim is pushed into the limelight when he rescues two children orphaned in an accident; the destiny of one of them, little Lucy Rochester, becomes entwined with that of his own family. Then bubonic plague comes to Australia, and Tim's peril is financial as well as physical, for he stands to lose his livelihood even if he escapes with his life. Because of the enmity of some men in high places, he realizes he has become an outsider: ``I am a white nigger,'' he despairs. Keneally's adroitness in handling period detail is superb. He makes the cultural and historical background vividly clear: from the names of Australian writers and poets to the atmosphere engendered by England's insistent exhortations to Australians to join the mother country in the Boer War; from details of topography and weather to the emigrants' dress, social behavior and everyday speech. The narrative has a mesmerizing readability, a succession of inspired scenes whose unflagging momentum leads to a powerful denouement. The story is haunting because it is both commonplace and universal. Keneally looks clearly at moral rot, but he is cautiously optimistic about the survival of good people and the uplifting heritage they bequeath. Major ad/promo; author tour. (Apr.)