Among the nations of the world perhaps only the Australians rival Americans in their indifference to the past. A country of immigrants remote from the Old World, they’re tempted to believe in Australia as a land of fresh starts and limitless horizons and to reject the notion of historical fate as a European relic. But past evils, as the brilliant, prolific, and highly versatile Australian novelist Thomas Keneally has made a career of showing, are not so easily exorcised from the human soul.
A leader of the Republican constitutional-reform movement in Australia, Keneally has never restricted himself to writing about his native country. Nor has he shied away from the most ambitious themes. Confederates (1979) is a novel about the American Civil War, and the masterful Schindler’s List (1983) — probably the best known of his books — tells the story of a German industrialist who saved thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps by means of bribes, chicanery, sexual favors, and blackmail. Scrupulously accurate, Schindler’s List won Britain’s Booker Prize for fiction, although it also generated a pedantic furor among critics who argued that the fact-based narrative wasn’t a proper novel at all — an objection unlikely to mean very much to audiences of Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming film version.
Comparatively intimate in scope, Keneally’s 20th novel, Woman of the Inner Sea, seems unlikely to create such controversy. After all, only the wealthy young woman who told Keneally the tale of her tragic marriage and self-imposed exile in the wilds of the Australian outback could possibly know how much of the story is pure invention. For the rest of us, the sheer delight of the novel’s witty and disarmingly offhand narration of an increasingly horrifying tale about cruelty, deception, and greed will have to suffice.
When we first meet her, Kate Gaffney-Kozinski has broken down crying on a Sydney street in front of a slick magazine poster portraying her uncle Frank, a native of Ireland and a Catholic priest defrocked and jailed for fraud, bribery, and tax evasion. The ”barely Reverend Frank O’Brien,” some call him, or the ”not-so-reverend Frank.” But it’s less her uncle’s shame Kate weeps for than the terrible fulfillment of his half-jocular warning on her wedding day: ”Omnes ethnici sunt periculosi,” he had cautioned. ”All foreigners are dangerous. What it meant roughly was that history is everything. People will not in the end forgive you for not having shared theirs.”
What he also meant was that Kate didn’t know very much about her husband, Paul, his Polish immigrant parents, the more unsavory aspects of their family construction business, or the ancestral hatreds that simmer in them just below the surface. By the time things go wrong for Kate, however, they go even more tragically wrong than Uncle Frank could have imagined. To hoard what’s left of her sanity, she goes ”walkabout,” fleeing Sydney under an assumed name and taking a job as a barmaid at a remote sheep station, ”northwest to an interior where, Australians always liked to believe, either answers or nullities could be found,” and seeking what she thinks of as ”the great antipodean stupefaction.”
The town of Myambagh is a place where nobody knows her family or her past, indeed where the past can scarcely be said to exist — hard-drinking diggers, Aborigines, kangaroos, emus, and all that. There are, however, those who find in Kate’s exile a threat, who would track her down and force her to submit to their will. Part adventure tale, part murder mystery, and part existential inquiry, Woman of the Inner Sea serves as a fine introduction to a critically praised author who deserves a broader American following. A-