Monday, November 12, 2007

Review of A Commonwealth of Thieves, by Thomas Keneally

A Commonwealth of Thieves, by Thomas Keneally

A reasonable introduction to the (colonial) history of Australia, that promises just a little more than it delivers.

I wish I had been educated in Australia. 220 years of history, mostly confined to New South Wales. That's something that even a dunce like me could get his head around. None of this Irish bronze-age nonsense.

Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's Ark and native son of Sydney, describes the founding of Australia in his particular way: though the eyes of the people who were there. He threads the strands of dozens of individuals' lives around the historical facts of the time, and writes with a flourish that is almost of the time he describes.

If I could, I would have given the book 3.5 stars, but it certainly didn't deserve 4. It begins well and carries the reader along, as all good books fiction or non-fiction should do. This was my first reading of Australian colonial history, so there was a lot of interesting new material here for me. However I'm not sure this would be the case for anybody who had even read the Australian Rough Guide's history section. The book finishes quite hurriedly with a long-ish epilogue in an attempt to tie up loose ends.

The central figure is that of Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet and first governor of New South Wales. Although the tale is not told through his eyes, the timeline covered by the book is framed by his involvement in the enterprise until the point where he returned to England, health failing, to settle down and take the waters in Bath. He comes across as an enigmatic man, and if Keneally intended to leave his examination of any of the characters at this superficial level, he succeeded. But here is the problem: A Commonwealth of Thieves is neither a comprehensive history, nor an intimate diary.

The cover blurb described rebellions that were never covered in the book itself. There are aparent forward references to Phillip's successors that in the end turn out to be unfulfilled. The menacing suggestions of the evil visited upon the Eora aboriginals when the relationship between them and the settlers finally broke down are left adrift.

I'm glad I read this book, but I'm not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Any suggestions of alternatives would be welcome.

Rated 3/5 on Nov 12 2007 by Brendan Lawlor

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