Thomas Keneally | Critical Review by Donna Rifkind

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Thomas Keneally.
This section contains 894 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Donna Rifkind

Critical Review by Donna Rifkind

SOURCE: "Is There Birth After Death" in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 16, 1993, p. 7.

In the following review of Woman of the Inner Sea, Rifkind focuses on the characterization of the book's heroine.

Australia, like America, was built on the promise of reinvention. Live here, it urged its immigrants, and be someone your old world would never permit. Thomas Keneally's 20th novel, Woman of the Inner Sea, reinvents the theme of reinvention. Set in the heart of Australia, the book asks a universal question. Is it possible to transform yourself after you have suffered the greatest loss you could ever imagine?

Keneally is an impeccable writer with a longstanding international reputation whose books have had settings as various as Nazi-dominated Europe (Schindler's List) and the interior of a hijacked airplane (Flying Hero Class). He has written about his native country many times as well. But, the contemporary Australia of this new novel has a particular dual purpose. Its miles of empty red earth, stringybark and eucalyptus, savage storms and eccentric wildlife represent more than just the external landscape through which the book's main character, Kate Gaffney-Kozinski, travels; the fluid unpredictability of the land also mirrors Kate's transformation as she makes her way from the coast toward the country's interior.

In her former life Kate had been the pampered but neglected wife of a Sydney real-estate tycoon. Lacking her husband's affection, she had poured all her resources—a beautiful home on the beach, limitless money, fine taste and the best intentions—into the art of motherhood. No matter that Paul spent more time with his mistress than with his two children; Kate made up for it by being the kind of mother who enrolls her toddler son in a class to learn to catch a ball, who rejoices in her agile daughter's swimming speed, who perches near their rooms at night to feel "the voiceless motors of her children's sleep."

In the space of a tragic afternoon Kate's maternity is erased. A house charred to its foundations, a husband screaming accusations and two small coffins are evidence of how completely her conscientiousness has come to nothing. She boards a train for the interior, hoping to lose herself in the country's great yawning center, to be "breathed in by the great antipodean stupefaction." The place Kate chooses for her self-annihilation is the "three-minute town" of Myambagh, where she finds work as a barmaid at Murchison's Railway hotel and concentrates the rest of her numb energy on getting as anonymously fat as possible on the pub's steady supply of steak and beer.

Myambagh, built on the hard flat rock of what was once an immense inland sea, is a town where a four-wheel drive is the key to survival, not a suburban affectation. The local economy relies on the certainty of brutal annual rains, which cause floods of biblical proportions: the time between yearly inundations is spent nailing, patching and plastering the town back together in preparation for the next disaster.

Kate likes Myambagh's soothing guarantees of loss made routine and unsurprising. She also likes the regulars at Murchison's, who have made a liturgy out of the strict unspoken code of pub behavior. These include Jelly, an obese pensioner with a hero's reputation for using dynamite to blast back the floods; Guthega, a loudmouth whose son holds the local championship for sheep-shearing; and Gus a cracker-jack mechanic.

Despite the town's preparations, the inevitable rains come, and Myambagh is once again swallowed by flood. At the height of the well-publicized catastrophe, fearing that the news cameras will betray her hiding place to her family in Sydney. Kate escapes westward again, closer to the country's obscuring core. This time she's not alone: Gus travels with her, attended by his pet emu and kangaroo.

Keneally's characters are archetypes to a man and woman, not to mention those two hugely symbolic animals, who happen to appear on the coat of arms of the commonwealth of Australia. His purpose is to invoke the Australian frontier tradition which, like all frontier cultures, seeks to reinvent ordinary people as icons and mythic figures.

While the major Australian icons have always been men, Keneally augments his country's tradition by making Kate the story's hero. In the tragedy of her dead children and her subsequent pilgrimage, Kate represents a nation on a perpetual search for reinvention, a nation hardened by countless histories of cash hunger, tough luck and untimely death; by the principle, as Keneally writes, "that the order of the world is loss followed by loss" in an unpredictable, unforgiving landscape.

Yet Kate is, to the author's credit, an utterly believable individual as well as an icon. Outlining the vastness of a mother's grief is one of literature's hardest challenges. The very outlandishness of Kate's pilgrimage (at one point, she and Gus pose as animal wranglers on a movie set with the emu and the kangaroo in tow) is made plausible by her bereavement: after suffering like hers, Keneally is suggesting, nothing surprises.

Woman of the Inner Sea is not a long book, but it has a wealth of complex characterization and action of a kind that few contemporary novels provide in any length. Keneally is a born storyteller whose writing becomes more clean and purposeful with every book. The experience of reading his latest work provides more grateful pleasure than the usual vocabulary of promotional cliches could ever begin to describe.

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This section contains 894 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Donna Rifkind
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