Since his first book, The Place at Whitton, was released in 1964, Tom Keneally’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 also 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.
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. But he has also investigated in great depth various perspectives of Australia’s numerous cultural conflicts. And these explorations of home stories have resulted in some of his most celebrated works.
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 Keneally’s 21st century achievements, here we introduce four of his recent literary works, including Two Old Men Dying – his 2018 addition to his oeuvre.
THE PEOPLE’S TRAIN (2009)
Artem Samsurov, 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, or the bickering local Russian emigres a model of brotherhood.
As he helps organise a strike and gets dangerously entangled in the death of another exile, he discovers that corruption, repression and injustice are almost as prevalent in Brisbane as at home. Yet he finds fellow spirits in a fiery old suffragette and an attractive married woman, who undermines his belief that a revolutionary cannot spare the time for relationships. When the revolution dawns and he returns to Russia, will his ideals hold true?
THE DAUGHTERS OF MARS (2012)
Inspired by the journals of Australian nurses, The Daughters of Mars is a vast yet intimate portrait of the contributions made by the extraordinary women caught in the great mill of history during the First World War.
Dairy farmers’ daughters Naomi and Sally Durance are bound together in complicity by what they consider a crime. When the Great War begins in 1914, they hope to submerge their guilt by leaving for Europe to nurse the tides of young wounded, so they 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. Here, new outrages present themselves, and they meet the men with whom they wish to spend the rest of their lives. Having left Australia in search of new experiences abroad, the sisters discover a world far beyond their imaginings.
CRIMES OF THE FATHER (2016)
An ex-seminarian himself, Keneally pulls no punches in this profoundly thoughtful examination of faith, marriage, conscience and celibacy, and of what has become of the Catholic Church.
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.
As a man of character and conscience, Docherty must confront each party involved in the abuse and cover-up to try to bring the matter to the attention of the Church itself, and to secular authorities. And in doing so, he discovers the lengths to which the Church will go in order to protect its own and ensure its survival.
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; of those who are thought to have travelled from the Rift Valley in Africa and to ancient Australia. Shelby Apple is an acclaimed documentary-maker. After making films about Learned Man’s discovery, Apple turns his sights on Eritrea. He thinks this embattled society might represent a new cognitive leap, one that will reconcile our tenderness and our savagery, our reason and our emotions.
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.
In the tradition of Atonement and Birdsong, the Durance sisters leave Australia to nurse on the front during WWI and discover a world beyond their imaginings.
A courageous and powerful novel about faith, the church, conscience and celibacy.
In perhaps his boldest and most personal novel, Tom Keneally explores the journeys of modern Australians alongside the imagined story of ancient Learned Man whose remains were discovered in Western NSW decades ago.
'Thomas Keneally is one of the historical novel's most expert practitioners, and his new book sees him back on the form that produced SCHINDLER'S ARK' Giles Foden, Guardian