Australians: Origins to Eureka, Volume 1
Allen & Unwin, $59.99 hb, 639 pp
A number of questions sprang to mind when I heard that Thomas Keneally was writing a three-volume history of Australia from its origins to the present. The first was to wonder how he would fit it into his crowded schedule. Clearly, though, this is not a problem. Keneally has just published another novel. More intriguing was the question as to what Keneally could add to the subject. After all, Australia is not lacking in colonial histories, many written by historians who are skilled writers. As Keneally is primarily a novelist, albeit one with a serious interest in our history and with several non-fiction studies under his belt, would the work reflect the conventions of historical fiction?
The new book’s title answers both these questions. It is Australians who are being explored, not Australia. By depicting Australian history through people’s stories rather than through political or economic movements, Keneally creates a character-driven narrative – or series of narratives – that suggests a novelist’s desire to animate the page using historical characters. The work, though creative, is far from fiction. Keneally is committed to accuracy and fidelity to the available sources. The focus on individual characters proves to be both the chief strength and weakness of the book.