Magazine article The Spectator

'Crimes of the Father', by Thomas Keneally - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Crimes of the Father', by Thomas Keneally - Review

Article excerpt

This may seem an odd thing to say about a writer who's been officially declared a National Living Treasure in his native Australia, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times before winning it with Schindler's Ark -- but I sometimes think Thomas Keneally is badly underrated. After all, Schindler's Ark won that Booker Prize 35 years -- and 19 Keneally novels -- ago, and since then his reputation appears to have settled down into that of a solid craftsman: the sort of novelist who rarely lets you down, but who never quite hits the literary heights either.

As to how this wildly unjust verdict has come about, my own theories would include the traditional suspicion of prolifigacy (in those 35 years, Keneally has also written 18 non-fiction books); and maybe even that his unfailing good-bloke geniality doesn't fit our preferred image of a Great Author. One thing that certainly can't be the reason, though, is the quality of Keneally's work.

Of course, as he genially admits, over a 53-year career, some of his books have been better than others. Now and again, his tendency to wear his considerable heart on his sleeve can lead to sentimentality -- as in 1989's Towards Asmara, about the Eritrean fight for independence. Yet at his best -- 2012's towering first world war novel Daughters of Mars, for example -- he's pretty much matchless: his humanism combined with clear-eyed analysis, exhilarating story-telling and prose of unforced grandeur.

On that spectrum, Crimes of the Father falls somewhere in the middle -- which is to say that it's merely very good indeed. The subject is one that, amid all his literary globe-trotting and time-travelling, Keneally has regularly returned to: the Australian Catholic church (itself a result of another of his abiding themes -- the sheer weirdness of Irish history being lived out 13,000 miles from Ireland). He himself trained as a priest, leaving just before ordination: partly through an increasing unease about the Church's sexual attitudes, and partly through a realisation that

behind the compelling mystery of Catholicism, with its foundation in the message of 'Caritas Christi' [the love of Christ] ... lay a cold and largely self-interested corporate institution.

Nearly 60 years later neither of these things, it seems, has lost the power to shock him. The book is set in the mid-1990s when the accusations of clerical sexual abuse were becoming impossible to ignore -- and when, as a heartfelt Author's Note says, 'the Church, faced with this crisis, reached not for the compassion of Christ but for the best lawyers available'. …

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