Keneally, Thomas (Writer)


(1935- ) novelist, playwright

Thomas Keneally was born at Kempsey on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia. His father was a postman. He attended a Christian Brothers’ school for his primary and high school education, and, at 17, he began to study for the Catholic priesthood. He abandoned this vocation in 1960 before his official ordination. Keneally taught for two years at the University of New England at Armidale before becoming a full-time writer. He was one of the few Australians who could rely on his writing to support himself and his family. Keneally has received three Commonwealth Literary Fund Awards, and his books have won two Miles Franklin Awards. He was awarded the Order of Australia in 1983 for his contributions to Australian literature. Keneally now lives in New York and Sydney.

Keneally’s writing appeals to both Australian and international audiences because it deals with human issues that transcend all geographical and social boundaries. Using a mixture of humor and tragic irony, Keneally is able to capture the constant struggle of society to come to terms with its actions, its relationships with others, and its uncertainty. Keneally’s past clearly influences his works. His first novel, The Place at Whitton (1964), is a mystery tale set in a Catholic seminary, while Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974) involves a female heroine character who resembles Joan of Arc. These two novels highlight the importance influence of the Catholic vocation as a phase in his past.

One of the major subjects represented in Keneally’s works is his concern with history and its lessons. Using historical materials, he is able to examine historical events and their impact through the perspectives of his central characters in novels such as Schindler’s Ark (1982) and Bring Larks and Heroes (1967). Schindler’s Ark tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved thousands of Jews from death during the Holocaust. Bring Larks and Heroes narrates the story of Australians who fought in Vietnam during World War II.

Keneally’s earlier novels tend to have a predominantly Australian setting. Books such as The Fear (1965) and The Chant ofJimmieBlacksmith (1972) are set in Australia. In The Fear, Keneally examines the experiences of a young boy growing up during World War II. The fears of war reaching Australian shores loom heavy in the imaginative mind of the boy as he begins to conjure imaginary visions of war atrocities and prisoner-of-war camps. The Chant ofJimmie Blacksmith, however, is a study of a history of interracial relations between the Aborigines and the Europeans. His later novels, beginning with Blood Red, Sister Rose, are set in locations including France, England, Yugoslavia, and the United States.

Keneally’s novels cover a wide range of genres from fables to macabre murders and mysteries. His versatility can be observed in his writings from concise and didactic parables to ornately elaborate narratives. In all Keneally’s novels, he is concerned with the connection between the past and the present. His motivation to write stems from his curiosity regarding the irony that human beings often find themselves in conflict with the conventions and values of the systems of authority that they help create. For instance, Schindler in Schindler’s Ark tries to do the humane thing by assisting many Jews to escape even though the fear of being discovered by the fanatical Nazi government hovers constantly over his head.

Keneally’s heroes and heroines act with integrity and honor despite their individual flaws. They are tragic figures trapped between the demands of unsympathetic institutions of authority and their own personal desires. In their attempts to do the right thing, they often flounder either in the seas of their guilt or under the destructive claws of the authority. Examples of these can be found in two of Keneally’s characters, Ramsey and Mait-land. Ramsey, in The Survivor (1969), finds himself caught in a vicious abyss of guilt and remorse for 40 years after he deserted his close friend and companion during an Antarctic expedition. Maitland, a priest-teacher in Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968), finds himself the subject of a series of religious hymns poking fun at the absurdity of religious rules. The tragic nature of the characters’ experiences is partially alleviated by Keneally’s injections of humor into the harsh reality of their experiences. The message that Keneally clearly sends across to his readers is the recognition that in spite of their poignant experiences, these heroic characters are active shapers of their own worlds. This is perhaps a main reason that Keneally’s novels are so appealing to readers all over the world: Readers are able to empathize with Keneally’s protagonists. The human condition is a complex web, and people are victims as well as active participants in their destinies.

Keneally also writes in other genres such as drama, children’s stories, nonfiction, and film scripts. His plays include Halloran’s Little Boat (1968), which is an adaptation of his book Bring Larks and Heroes, and Bullie’s House (1981), which examines early interactions between Australian Aborigines and the European settlers. In Bullie’s House, the Aborigines show the white settlers their precious totems hoping that the latter would in return share their knowledge and technology, which the whites never quite do on equal terms. Ke-neally’s greatest contribution lies in his ability to capture in essence and intensity the dramatic clash of two cultures, which constitutes an important theme in world literature.

Other Works by Thomas Keneally

The Great Shame: and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-speaking World. New York: Nan A. Talese, 1999.

The Playmaker. London: Sceptre, 1988.

A Season in Purgatory. New York: Harcourt Brace Jo-vanovich, 1977.

Three Cheers for the Paraclete. New York: Viking, 1969.

Towards Asmara. London: Hodder and Staughton, 1989.

Victim of the Aurora. New York: Harcourt Brace Jo-vanovich, 1978.

Works about Thomas Keneally

Beston, John. “Novelist’s Vital Professionalism,” Hemisphere 17, no. 10 (1973): 23-26.

Breitinger, Eckhard. “Thomas Keneally’s Historical Novels,” Commonwealth News (Aarhus) 10 (1976): 16-20.

Next post:

Previous post: