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  • Published: 30 May 2016
  • ISBN: 9780857984623
  • Imprint: Vintage Australia
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 448
  • RRP: $22.99

Napoleon's Last Island

Whilst living in exile on St Helena, Napoleon exerted an extraordinary influence on young Betsy Balcombe. How did she get from Napoleon’s side to the Australian bush?

Whilst living in exile on St Helena, Napoleon exerted an extraordinary influence on young Betsy Balcombe. How did she get from Napoleon’s side to the Australian bush?

When Tom Keneally discovered by chance at the National Gallery of Victoria that Betsy Balcombe, a young girl living on St Helena while the Emperor Napoleon was exiled there, had become the Emperor’s ‘intimate friend and annoyer’, and had then emigrated with her family to Australia, he was impelled to begin another extraordinary novel, exploring the intersection between the ordinary people of the world and those we deem exceptional.

Betsy Balcombe moved as a child with her family to St Helena, ‘that high mid-Atlantic rock of exile’. Ten years later her family befriended, served and were ruined by their relationship with Napoleon. 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. After enduring a profound tragedy on the voyage out, and never quite recovering from the results of his association with Napoleon, William’s life deteriorated; however, his family struggled and survived in Australia.

Tom Keneally recreates Betsy’s friendship with The Great Ogre, her enmities and alliances with his court, and her dramatic coming of age during her years with them on the island. With his ability for bringing historical stories to life in the most brilliant and surprising ways, Keneally vividly shares this remarkable tale and the beginning of an Australian dynasty.

  • Published: 30 May 2016
  • ISBN: 9780857984623
  • Imprint: Vintage Australia
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 448
  • RRP: $22.99

About the author

Tom Keneally

Thomas Keneally was born in 1935 and his first novel was published in 1964. Since then he has written a considerable number of novels and non-fiction works. His novels include The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Schindler's List and The People's Train. He has won the Miles Franklin Award, the Booker Prize, the Los Angeles Times Prize, the Mondello International Prize and has been made a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library, a Fellow of the American Academy, recipient of the University of California gold medal, and is now the subject of a 55 cent Australian stamp.

He has held various academic posts in the United States, but lives in Sydney.

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Praise for Napoleon's Last Island

Insightful and nimble prose. . . [Keneally’s] writing is consistently fresh and engaging. . . . As in Henry James’s novels about children, the combination of knowledge and ignorance creates a chiaroscuro effect that gives the narrative depth. . . .Napoleon’s Last Island is old-fashioned in the best sense. . . call[s] to mind the giants of 19th century fiction . . . . Seamlessly unites fiction and the “truth,” which means in this case that its armature of fact supports its layers of fictional invention as thought they were weightless. The delight Keneally took in pulling off this trick shows on every page.

John Vernon, New York Times Book Review

Narrated by Betsy, Keneally’s book gives readers a persuasive account of this precocious teenager’s view of the world’s most infamous man. He makes Betsy an engaging and witty presence, and he charts her destiny into her post–St. Helena existence, where the short general’s long shadow continues to affect her life. Like the late E.L. Doctorow, Keneally adapts his style to suit his subject matter, and here the high formality of 19th-century journal-keeping helps bring alive the bittersweet last days of Napoleon.

Publishers Weekly

Napoleon's Last Island, the latest book from Thomas Keneally, and the fact that the book is unfailingly great reading is testimony to the fact that Keneally is our greatest living practitioner of historical fiction. The book is a complex and mesmerizing success.

Steve Donoghue, Christian Science Monitor

This brilliant reworking of a 19th-century footnote is more than historical fiction, it’s an account of contemporary relevance – typical Keneally, then. Another Keneally trademark is using minor characters to tell a greater story. Through Betsy runs the fault-line between cultures: the British monarchy vs the dubious republican, the global battle writ small. It is her obscurity, her unimportance, which makes her the ideal lens. Betsy’s friendship with Napoleon is a historical footnote, but in a novel, she assumes the central role. This is the journal of a precocious young lady fascinated by the emperor. It reflects her childish delight in being the centre of his attention and this device allows Keneally to show a more humanised Napoleon outside of his normal context. Writing Napoleon’s Last Island from Betsy’s perspective allows Keneally to entertain readers with his trademark verve and impishness. Few can match him as a storyteller, and this story deserved his attention. Thank goodness future Balcombes valued the trinkets Napoleon gave them and thrived on this island at the bottom of the southern seas. For that, Keneally and his readers can be grateful.

Meredith Jaffe, Guardian Australia

One of the most enjoyable, high spirited and technically accomplished works of a long career. This intimate glimpse of high political drama entwined with domestic play that this subtle and festive novel has afforded.

Peter Pierce, The Australian

Keneally, as always, skilfully weaves fact and fiction. A top read.

John Caples, The Examiner

Keneally uses history to tell an imaginary tale of the relationships on the island prison not only between Napoleon and Betsy, but also between the other people who shared his exile. Those familiar with Keneally will recognise his approach to fiction: "Telling the truth by telling divine lies", as he has put it in a number of interviews. In doing so, he succeeds, with touches of brilliance, in bringing to life characters in more detail than history ever possibly could. For it is not just a story about Betsy, it is also a coming-of-age story, one in which the protagonist gradually becomes aware of the foibles of human nature. Through her we discover an adult world, a world that she constantly grapples to come to terms with.

Philip Dwyer, The Sydney Morning Herald

Rollicking story

Susan Lever, Inside Story

The outspoken Betsy is a terrific character . . . [There are] some glorious moments . . . lit with Keneally's trademark impish humour. He is a magpie, as preternaturally inquisitive as Napoleon himself, and the book has a cast of characters to rival Dickens.

Clare Clark, Guardian, UK

Immersive and charming . . . Keneally's Betsy is a vivid, attractive portrait of a young girl brinking on young womanhood and a thoroughly useful device. Through her he can view the emperor clearly - as an absurd figure, a joker, a voracious devourer of food, women, information. But there is so much more here, too. The flora and geography of the island are beautifully evoked, the inhabitants drawn in sharp, succinct strokes . . . a pure pleasure to read.

Nick Curtis, Evening Standard

A typically polished yarn by a grand master of historical fiction.

Max Davidson, Mail on Sunday