A River Town 
by Thomas Keneally.
Sceptre, 330 pp., £15.99, March 1995, 9780340610930
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There is something about a millennium, something about the clicking-over of zeros on the odometer of history that sends a frowsy doomsday swell welling up from under. Good round numbers beget both end-of-an-age unease and unreasonable hopes. They breed signs and wonders. They inspire large gestures towards New Beginnings.

In 1900, the year in which Thomas Keneally’s most recent novel situates itself, the separate Australian colonies were reeling from economic depression and the worst drought since European settlement began in 1788. There were catastrophic losses of cattle and sheep, wheat plummeted to less than one-tenth of pre-drought yield, dustbowl conditions prevailed, bushfires raged, farmers and squatters were forced to abandon their land. Far away, the sons of these hard-pressed farmers were dying under British generals in other people’s wars: the Boer War in South Africa, the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China. And above and beyond all this, most ominous of doomsday signs in that apocalyptic year, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney.

In 1900, in short, death was swift and common in the six Australian colonies: from drought, bushfire, battle, accident, disease. And yet for most settlers, compared to what was left behind – the dreary lives of the impoverished and the excluded of London, Glasgow, rural Ireland – Australia was still the promised land. Indeed, the revellers of 26 January 1900, celebrating the centenary of the First Fleet’s arrival, had a jubilant and self-confident view of themselves, not as the transplanted pawns of empire in exile at the ‘world’s worse end’, but as Australians, a lucky people, fiercely independent, with hope and initiative in their tucker bags.

In spite of plague and hard times, grand gestures toward a new age were definitely in order, and on 1 January 1901, federation of the six colonies as the Commonwealth of Australia took place. An editorial in the Worker (Brisbane) on 5 January 1901 reflected the messianic optimism:

For good or ill the several Australian colonies now constitute what is known as the Australian Commonwealth ... and what was a group of colonies steps upwards and onwards to the dignity of a Nation. Victorians, Queenslanders, or Westralians will be unknown, and every child born of the soil, or approved and naturalised colonist, will in future be an Australian. An Australian; a citizen of a nation whose realm is a continent and whose destiny is – what? ...

   Australia has ever been an exemplar to the old lands. From the first establishment of responsible government within its borders it has steadily forged ahead, initiating and perfecting, experimenting and legislating, on new lines. By a happy fortune it sprang up free of most of the superstitions, traditions, class distinctions, and sanctified fables and fallacies of the older nations. What few of them were bound about it it has shaken itself free of, and stands on the threshold of the future with its fate in its own hands.

Nevertheless there were, in the small bastions of transplanted gentry, fierce voices raised against ‘disloyalty’ to Britain. Irish settlers were deemed particularly culpable, their motives and their Australian patriotism suspect. No one, needless to say, so much as consulted the indigenous population on the question. The dark underside of 1900 has been powerfully explored in another Keneally novel set in the same millennial year, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

All this sounds oddly familiar as Australia approaches the year 2000, staggering out from under economic recession and from the worst drought of the century, the old millennial urge for a New Beginning still running strong. It is the promise of Prime Minister Paul Keating, of the Labour Party, of the Australian Republican Movement, as well as the majority wish of the population as sounded by pollsters, that on Australia Day 2000 – or at the latest by 1 January 2001, the anniversary of Federation – Australia will cease to be a constitutional monarchy owing allegiance to the British Crown, and will become a republic. There has been much airing of a 1900 refrain: that republican fervour is a species of treason toward the past, that the ARM is an Irish-Australian plot (and indeed, the Prime Minister and the leading lights of the ARM are conspicuously of Irish descent). But the appeal of the republic is far wider than this. Although debates still rage, there is general acceptance of its inevitability, and over the past year public discussion has moved from whether Australia should become a republic to what sort of republic it should become.

It is of course no accident that A River Town should seem to be so eerily about the present. The allegory is intentional, the intention passionate. Thomas Keneally was first chairman of the Australian Republican Movement and is now a member of the National Management Committee. His grandparents, to whose memory the novel is dedicated, were Irish immigrants who kept a store in the Macleay Valley, north of Sydney, a store identical in its location and lineaments to the store owned and run by Tim Shea, protagonist of the novel. When the characters of A River Town debate Britain’s needs and Australia’s duty in the Boer War, or when Irish Tim is blacklisted by certain establishment gentry for his unwillingness to swear an oath to ‘support without equivocation the aims of the British Empire in Southern Africa, including the extinction of all Boer pretensions of sovereignty’, the reader is being offered the hindsight of history as a glass through which to look at today’s political agenda. (‘How in hell’s name,’ Tim asks himself, ‘could you vote casually for the death of the young?’)

The novel opens in January 1900, in the town of Kempsey, in the valley of the Macleay, ‘on the lush and humid north coast of New South Wales’. Almost everyone in town except Tim Shea, proprietor of the general store, has gone downriver by steamer to celebrate the national holiday. Hope is in the air. ‘Hard times were said to be ending.’

But doomsday signs and wonders also abound. On the holiday, at the edge of the empty town, there is a horrible horse-and-sulky accident. Shea, in an impulsive though futile rescue attempt, is witness to the ghastly sight of wild pigs goring and devouring the crushed driver’s head. The driver’s orphaned children are also frightened observers. Later, still on the national holiday itself, Tim is shown by the local constable the severed head of a young woman, unnamed, unidentified, victim of a bungled abortion. The head floats ghoulishly in a flask of alcohol ‘in accordance with long police practice in such affairs’. Before the imprisoned abortionists can be prosecuted for murder, their victim must be identified, and so the head is carted around by the constable who keeps it in a preserving jar wrapped in blue gingham in a picnic basket. ‘We call her Missy. She was only young ... You’ll see, she was lovely in life.’ The severed head, with its eyes not quite shut, its lips parted, haunts Tim Shea. He sees ‘a serious child, making serious claims’. From the first glimpse, he feels marked, chosen, senses that she makes moral demands of him, seeking the restoration of her name and the calling to account of the man (clearly someone powerful, someone affluent) who discreetly arranged the abortion of the child he had fathered. For Tim, Missy is ‘dreadfully everywhere’, particularly in his nightmares.

And then there are the orphaned children of the accident, for whom Tim feels responsible. The disaster has particularly disturbing effects on Lucy, who has a strange power to infect other children with her detachment and her death-defying urges. More signs and wonders: children fly, they scale lunatic heights, they leap off cliffs.

A severed head, another head gored by pigs, untameable orphaned children; these are weighty symbols, suggesting parallels in the body politic (a distant head of state, alien to its imperial limbs; an orphaned colony bent on self-destruction), though their allegorical import runs curiously counter to the protagonist’s sympathies. Such slippage gives the book a richly ambiguous texture. Here, in fact, lies one of the consistent strengths of the entire (and considerable) body of Keneally’s work. Though he has a passionate moral vision, he is not didactic. (Spielberg, yes; Keneally, no; the rose-tinted light of moral sentimentality that Spielberg has cast on Keneally has skewed the perception of the novelist’s work in some quarters. Perhaps Keneally will come to wish that he had done as Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer-prize-winning Maus, has done: turned down Spielberg’s film offer.) Keneally is one of those rare writers whose work is widely accessible yet also of real sinew and complexity. He is too fine a novelist not to subvert any narrow moral or political intention. His images skitter in several directions at once, their import is provocatively and fruitfully multivalent.

Like all his protagonists, deeply reluctant prophets and heroes every last one of them, Keneally has a heightened awareness of the contradictions inherent in characters and in issues. His protagonists, men and women who have a yen for ordinary unremarkable lives but who are compelled by circumstances and by some hard inconvenient kernel of integrity to be exceptional, are torn by self-doubt, they are hyper-conscious of mixed motives, they are distrustful of certainties.

Long before Oskar Schindler, by random encounter, had caught Keneally’s attention with his imponderable life and ambiguous saint-hood, the novelist had been exploring the hubris and the vulnerability of the kind of flawed hero whose archetype is the Biblical prophet Jeremiah. (‘Oh Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived ... I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me ... But if I say “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.’)

From Halloran of Bring Larks and Heroes (the early novel of Australia’s convict days, winner of the Miles Franklin Award in 1967) to Leeming, the Antarctic explorer in The Survivor (1969), to Jimmie the Aboriginal rebel pushed beyond endurance in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), to Joan of Arc in Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974), to Oskar Schindler, to Tim Shea, rebel in spite of himself, Keneally has given us a gallery of extraordinarily memorable, complex, deeply flawed heroes-by-accident.

Tim Shea’s life seems proof that no good deed goes unpunished. His inconvenient conscience and his generosity (of finances and of compassion) almost destroy him. Taking ten-year-old Lucy to his own home after the accident, he feels morally and financially responsible for her, a stance he can ill afford, being in more or less perpetual debt because of his unwillingness to demand payment from hard-pressed customers. Further, and in spite of an astringent attitude toward his Catholic heritage and the Church hierarchy, he also feels compelled to pay for intercessory masses for Missy of the severed head. Not only is this financial lunacy, it renders him suspect in the eyes of the constable. Is Tim the guilty lover who arranged the abortion?

Of even more serious consequence is his behaviour at a jingoistic meeting to drum up a Patriotic Fund for the Boer War. Tim has no intention of completely ruining his precarious business by any public posturing. He feels irritation for the newspaper editor who is much ‘taken by the surface glitter of injustices. That was the great fault of writers. Injustice never penetrated their skins too deeply, put them off a meal, or the next drink which waited for them in the bar of the Commercial.’

Though Tim ‘was willing to risk being poor for the sake of everyone thinking him open-handed, he didn’t want to risk it for the sake of politics.’ He listens with wary admiration to the dairy farmer Borger who speaks out against the war, but is catcalled down. Borger reminds Tim of ‘his own political uncle from Glenlara, a family secret. Uncle Johnny was Fenian “Centre” – they said at his trial in Tim’s infancy – for the whole of Cork. Denied absolution by most priests ... Stuck by his ideas, like Borger, and was shipped on the last convict ship to Western Australia ... A soul like Borger’s. A soul Tim didn’t want to have.’ And yet, in spite of his fixed intention, Tim finds himself applauding Borger and making his own speech. ‘It was the first public display he had given, and he could feel the blood prickling its way along his arms and legs. For there was some rare gesture building in him. He was excited by such occasional rushes of courage, but loathed them too, the way they exposed him.’

Tim is blacklisted, his business brought within a whisker of ruin. It is through the shipping negligence of his principal opponent, prosperous merchant and chairman of multiple civic bodies, Ernie Malcolm, that the plague comes upriver from Sydney, first striking at Ernie Malcolm’s own wife. And through an impulsive and wholly typical act of compassion, which he furiously regrets, Tim himself risks infection and is quarantined in the same barracks as his foe. More secrets than either anticipated come tumbling out of this closeted time. In an unexpected way, a kind of justice is done, a kind of right order restored.

Such a resolution, even with this bitter-sweet edge, is rare in Keneally (victory is usually Pyrrhic, frequently posthumous), though it is historically in keeping with the millennial optimisms of 1900 and 2000. A River Town is not without weaknesses, veering as it does towards political fable, political romance. There are times when Keneally’s lapsed-Catholic sensibility and his not-at-all-lapsed Irish sensibility turn mawkish, a recurrent sin (venial, to be sure) in his work, more under acerbic control in the early novels, less so in the later ones. It is as though he were still furtively yearning for absolution from Manly Seminary (which he left two weeks before his ordination to the priesthood) and from the unbending Christian Brothers of his schooldays. He directs, as always, bracing satire and astringent wit towards the Church, but also reveals a nostalgia that is soft at the centre. The Irish-Australians and the Catholics in Keneally’s novels may be larrikins, they may be faulty and flawed, but none of them is ever mean at the core. One can never say the same for the non-Irish and the non-Catholic.

Nevertheless, Keneally’s lapses are redeemed and overshadowed by his meticulous attention to psychological details which have nothing to do with his political agendas and which in fact subvert them, diverting and dispersing focus. He is truly catholic in the non-sectarian sense of the term in the breadth of his empathy, in the nuanced observation of private and social relations (between a policeman and other drinkers in a bar, for example), and in the sheer delicacy and affection lavished on the portrayal of even minor characters.

Above all there is the quite extraordinary portrait of orphaned Lucy, ten years old going on fifty, sombre and wise beyond her years, needy as an infant, gifted manipulator, both self-sufficient and desperate, a wild child, a cynical and alarmingly intelligent all-seeing observer. Only in Henry James does one encounter another such riveting portrait of cursed innocence, and Keneally’s Lucy is a more vibrantly warm flesh-and-blood waif than any of the little lost souls in James. Think what you will of the republic and the politics of Australia, past and present, you will not easily forget Missy’s severed head or Lucy’s spreading of her tragic little wings for her brave flight into the new century. The meanings of these images are multiple, unclear, unassimilated, unforgettable.

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Vol. 17 No. 13 · 6 July 1995

The year 1900 seems to leave Janette Turner Hospital (LRB, 25 May) lost for words: 26 January 1900 was not ‘the centenary of the First Fleet’s arrival’, but its 112th anniversary; and 1900 was not a ‘millennial year’ (even figuratively). It was a centurial year.

John Philip

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