John Freeman
June 04, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Keneally never names the tyrant at the heart of his new novel, but readers will recognize Saddam Hussein in the eccentric details. The Great Uncle has visitors scrubbed and disinfected, then slathered in Tommy Hilfiger aftershave before meeting him — which hero Alan Sheriff learns when he’s tapped to ghostwrite the dictator’s autobiography. Sheriff describes how he raced against time and conscience to meet a deadline before fleeing the country in an oil barrel. Keneally, hitless since 1982’s Booker Prize winner Schindler’s List, may just break that streak with a story as timely as it is disturbing.

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