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A guide to… Tom Keneally

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A rough guide to some of the 21st century novels of a living Australian literary legend.

Where to begin celebrating the colossal career of Tom Keneally? Since his first book, The Place at Whitton, was released in 1964, he’s published more than 35 novels, 18 non-fiction works and several plays. He’s the only author to win the Miles Franklin Award in two consecutive years – for Bring Larks and Heroes (1967) and Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968) – and he won the Man Booker Prize for Schindler’s Ark in 1982. His works have been adapted into major award-winning films – notably Stephen Spielberg’s 1994 Academy Award for Best Picture-winning Schindler’s List and Fred Schepisi’s 1978 adaptation of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith – and his literary achievements have been recognised via multiple honorary titles, awards and fellowships. He is also an Australian Living Treasure and the subject of a 55-cent stamp.

A universal storyteller
Rich in symbolism, the consistent threads that bind Keneally’s literary works together are his astute perception and eye for detail, unyielding empathy, deft phrasing and the ability to spin a satisfying yarn. Renowned for the geographical, thematic and historical breadth of his fiction, his stories traverse the globe with subjects as wide-ranging as Napoleon and Joan of Arc, the Holocaust and the American Civil War. He has also investigated in great depth Australia’s various cultural conflicts, and these explorations of home stories have resulted in some of his most celebrated works.

A contemplative eye for home stories
In 1971’s A Dutiful Daughter, Keneally creates an allegory of the rebelliousness and burgeoning sexuality of youth, played out on a swampy northern New South Wales farm. In 1972’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, through the story of a farmhand pushed to breaking point, Keneally explores the dispossession of Indigenous Australians at the hands of white settlers. In 2000’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted An Angel in Australia, he offers a haunting and evocative tale of murder and loss of innocence during wartime. In 2018’s Two Old Men Dying, Keneally draws a line back to an ancient Australian perspective: that of a 42,000-year-old man whose bones are discovered in the sediment of dried-up lake. And in 2020’s The Dickens Boy, we follow the richly imagined fortunes of Charles Dickens’ tenth child, Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (known as Plorn), as he’s sent to Australia at sixteen years old to learn to ‘become a man’.

An unstoppable creative force
Remarkably, in a half-century of storytelling so far, Keneally has averaged around a book a year, and in this dedication to craft he has shown no sign of fatigue. In celebration of just some of his recent literary achievements, here we offer a rough guide to some of Tom Keneally’s 21st century novels.

An Angel in Australia (2002)
Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
Sydney, 1942: the year of the fall of Singapore, the bombing of Darwin and the surprise attack on Sydney Harbour by Japanese midget submarines. When the beautiful wife of an Australian POW is found brutally murdered, she takes on the character of a victim of war in the mind of an impressionable young priest.

The Tyrant’s Novel (2003)
In an oil-rich country terrorised by a tyrant known as The Great Uncle, war veteran and celebrated writer Alan Sheriff has a better life than most until his beautiful and beloved actress wife Sarah dies – and he is made an offer he can't refuse.

The Widow and Her Hero (2007)
When Grace married the genial and handsome Captain Leo Waterhouse in Australia in 1943, they were young, in love – and at war. Sixty years later, Grace is still haunted by the tragedy of her doomed husband. As new fragments of her hero's story emerge, Grace is forced to keep revising her picture of what happened, until she learns about the final piece in the jigsaw, and the ultimate betrayal.

The People’s Train (2009)
A charismatic protégé of Lenin and an ardent socialist reaches sanctuary in Australia after escaping his Siberian labour camp and making a long, perilous journey via Japan. But Brisbane in 1911 turns out not to be quite the workers’ paradise he was expecting…

The Daughters of Mars (2012)
Dairy farmers’ daughters Naomi and Sally Durance leave for WW1 Europe to nurse the tides of young wounded, and head for the Dardanelles on the hospital ship Archimedes. Their education in medicine, valour and human degradation continues on the Greek island of Lemnos, then on to the Western Front. Having left Australia in search of new experiences abroad, the sisters discover a world far beyond their imaginings.

Napoleon’s Last Island (2015)
On the mid-Atlantic island of St Helena, a young Betsy Balcombe’s family befriended, served and were ruined by their relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been exiled there. To redeem their fortunes William Balcombe, Betsy’s father, betrayed the Emperor and accepted a job as the colonial treasurer of New South Wales, taking his family with him...

Crimes of the Father (2016)
Ex-communicated to Canada due to his radical preaching on human rights, Father Frank Docherty is now a psychologist and monk. He returns to Australia to speak on abuse in the Church, and is soon listening to stories from two different people: a young man, via his suicide note, and an ex-nun. Both people claim to have been sexually abused by an eminent Sydney cardinal, who has now been enlisted to investigate sex abuse within the Church.

The Monserrat series: The Soldier’s Curse (2016), The Unmourned (2017), The Power Game (2018) and The Ink Stain (2019)
Tom and his daughter Meg Keneally’s Monserrat series follows the adventures of an unlikely, accidental investigative duo – from the penal colonies of Port Macquarie to the sprawl of western Sydney and a tiny island off Tasmania. ‘Gentleman convict’ to ‘ticket-of-leave gentleman’, Hugh Monsarrat’s interrogative mind and nose for justice have allowed him to break away from the shadows of a questionable past. But any reader of the Monsarrat books will soon realise the real brains behind the operation are in the possession of strong-willed housekeeper and tea-making genius, Hannah Mulrooney.

Two Old Men Dying (2018)
In one of his boldest and most personal novels to date, Keneally explores the journeys of modern Australians alongside the imagined story of ancient Learned Man, whose remains were discovered in Western NSW decades ago.

Learned Man is the child of humankind as we know it. Shelby Apple is an acclaimed documentary-maker. Shelby sees the world through the lens of his camera; Learned Man through the lens of his responsibility under law. But both men are well aware that their landscape comes to them from elders and ancestors. And they are each willing to die and, in a sense, kill for their secret crafts. 

The Dickens Boy (2020)
The tenth child of Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (also known as Plorn), had consistently proved unable ‘to apply himself ’ to school or life. So, aged sixteen, he is sent, as his brother Alfred was before him, to Australia. Plorn arrives in Melbourne in late 1868 carrying a terrible secret. He has never read a word of his famous father’s work.

Corporal Hitler's Pistol (2021)
How did Corporal Hitler's Luger from the First World War end up being the weapon that killed an IRA turncoat in Kempsey, New South Wales, in 1933? Set in a town he knows very well, in this novel Tom Keneally tells a compelling story of the interactions and relationships between black and white Australians in early twentieth-century Australia.

Related features

Author’s note: Tom Keneally

Straight from the pages of Crimes of the Father.

Two Old Men Dying

At the time of the discovery of the astonishingly ancient Learned Man, some decades back, my friend Peter Jorgensen, a scientist from Melbourne, was testing dried lake basins and their sediments for records of ancient rainfall oscillations.

Crimes of the Father

Docherty Comes to Australia 1 July 1996 Sarah Fagan was driving a cab.

At home with Tom Keneally

Please enjoy Tom Keneally’s author talk on his latest novel The Dickens Boy.

The Ink Stain

‘What’s it for this time, Mr Hallward? Trespassing again?’

The Unmourned

Prologue Parramatta, November 1825 He really must do something about that door, he thought as he crossed the yard back to his quarters.

The Power Game

Bart Harefield loved laughing at them. The ones who thought they had power.