Thomas Keneally | Critical Review by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 19 pages of analysis & critique of Thomas Keneally.
This section contains 1,170 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Kerin Cantrell

Critical Review by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

SOURCE: "The Woman Who Lost Her Children," in New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1993, p. 9.

In the following review, Schaeffer outlines the plot and themes of Woman of the Inner Sea.

What would you do if you were a happily married woman whose husband had an affair with a woman who came to obsess him—and then a mysterious catastrophe took your two beloved children from you forever? Would you have the emotional stamina to survive? If you are one of those fortunate people who hasn't experienced this kind of tragedy, you don't know. Kate Gaffney-Kozinski, the heroine of Thomas Keneally's 20th novel, Woman of the Inner Sea, doesn't know either—even though it has all happened to her—but she is about to find out.

Kate was raised as a modern woman, trained to think of the frenzy of motherhood as something primitive. Wealthy and privileged in her beach house near Sydney, she came to believe that life would be one long, sun-drenched idyll. When her marriage collapsed and her children were gone, she became, according to her uncle, the roguish Rev. Frank O'Brien, the "Queen of Sorrows." She needs to rediscover how to live, needs to learn "what is required of me now."

Kate is looking for a personal myth or fable that can explain her own life and give her purpose. She is convinced, as is her Uncle Frank, who has carefully passed his own beliefs along to her, that it does not matter what gods you believe in as long as you have gods to believe in, gods that can give you faith to see you through a life all too often disfigured by suffering. It is not necessary, according to Uncle Frank, to worship only "the Other. The Dressed-up One."

Kate does not seek wisdom in the "big, loud, mad cities" where, she believes, there is no truth to be found; instead, she sets off for the outback. Acting as a "free traveler," she decides to let the "wide-spaced towns educate her," then randomly settles in Myambagh, in central Australia, because it "looked most eminently a town of habit," a town tailored exactly to her requirements: "She wanted to be amongst those country faces anyhow. She wanted to feed numbly on them. From the present, poisoned world, she wanted to track back with the help of those faces to the safer Australia … where people called lunch dinner and dinner tea."

Kate takes up residence in Murchison's Railway Hotel and quickly comes to see the hotel bar as a kind of church, a sacred place "of holiness and taboo like other places of this nature: the weighing room at racecourses, the middle box of a confessional." In this bar are men who have also become holy. Each one, the owner tells her, is "bloody famous for something." Each, in other words, has a purpose and knows what it is. Sitting at the bar, "they thought they were pleasing themselves but in fact were at a kind of work, fulfilling a function, occupying spaces which had to be occupied to insure that things lasted and that constellations stayed in place."

Kate herself is soon ordained as a barmaid in this holy place. And when one of the floods that periodically threaten Myambagh arrives, Kate, who has begun an odd affair with a man called Jelly (not for his weight, but because he handles gelignite, an explosive he has learned to use in the construction business) goes with him on his sacred mission to dynamite the railway levee that is trapping the flood waters near the town. They are joined by a bar mate, Gus Schulberger, and his pets, an emu named Menzies and a kangaroo named Chifley. But all are led by Jelly, who after dying in his effort to save the town "would have such renown in Myambagh tomorrow, a man who would have rounded the circle of his own appointed fable."

With Jelly gone, Kate turns to Gus—and to Chifley, the tame kangaroo, whose ability to leap through the air restores her faith in salvation. Weighed down as she is by guilt, which has slowed and trapped her, she sees Chifley as something of a god, perhaps as her own child, certainly a symbol of freedom.

Before Kate's adventures in the outback end, her dead lover, Jelly, is transformed from a mere hero of Myambagh into someone of truly mythic stature, and Gus, who has rescued the emu and the kangaroo, has become a folk hero. When Kate returns to Sydney, she has learned what she needs to know: that suffering is in the nature of things; that the worst catastrophe that can occur is merely one among many; and that no crisis, however enormous, justifies expending everything on it.

These are, as Kate's Uncle Frank tells her, simple truths, but hard to grasp. Yet now that she knows them, she is free to revenge herself on her husband, free to solve the riddle of her children's deaths, free to lift the undeserved burden of guilt from her own shoulders. She reaches, as Mr. Keneally tells us in his final passage, "the illusorily static point appropriate to the closure of a tale." In his concluding line—"We all wish her nothing but well"—he underscores his theme: life does not always leave us happy. Trouble never ends. And Kate, like everyone else, will need our good wishes.

Woman of the Inner Sea succeeds on many fronts. It is a picaresque and often hilarious adventure story, recounting one woman's unforgettable if improbable travels. It is a series of love stories, as Kate meets the man who is appropriate for her at each stage of her life, and it is a mystery story as well. But the novel is also very much an exploration of ethics. What is a good person? asks Mr. Keneally. And what is good behavior? A good life? Does an individual existence have a purpose and, if so, what is it?

"Kate is in her way a strong character," Mr. Keneally tells us. "She's not like someone out of Ionesco." And, he adds, "it is all very well for novelists not to believe in character, but what if the characters themselves have been raised to believe in it?" This question gives us a strong insight into Mr. Keneally's own purpose. He regards modern urban life as a wasteland where people no longer speak the truth. In Woman of the Inner Sea, he stands up for his own verities.

The world we live in is, according to Mr. Keneally, "poisoned" and overcivilized materially, while spiritually it is dangerously undernourished. Using all his novelistic skills (including uproarious humor) he asserts and makes convincing the very serious belief that each of us has a necessary place—and that our most important task is to find it. Woman of the Inner Sea is a magical fable about how this can be done.

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This section contains 1,170 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Kerin Cantrell
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