Saturday, 18 January 2014

Book Review: Shame and the Captives by Tom Keneally

Shame and the Captives
Tom Keneally
Vintage Publishing
9780857980991

First of all, when did Tom Keneally stop being published under Thomas?  Was it before or after The Daughters of Mars?  I can't remember... and truthfully, other than this novel, I have never read any of his work before.  All I know is that the whole of Australia seems to think that he is wonderful.  Perhaps he is... but Shame and the Captives was rather disappointing for me, and this is why.

Shame and the Captives is a creative transposition of the Cowra outbreak during the Second World War to the made up town of Gawell.  It follows the points of view of several characters living in and around the Gawell internment camp, which is home to Japanese, Korean and Italian prisoners of war who have been captured in other parts of the world (and Darwin which by comparison is rather close) and brought to Australia to be kept an eye on.  The characters we follow are: Alice, a farmer's wife living with her father in law while her new husband is a prisoner in Greece, Suttor, a major who spends most of his time writing radio plays, Tengan, Goda and Aoki, three Japanese prisoners, Cheong, a Korean prisoner, and Colonel Abercare who is estranged from his wife due to past indiscretions.  From the blurb, I was lead to believe that this book would be mostly about the love story between Alice and the Italian internee who is assigned to work on their farm.  This was not really the case.

On the back of the book, the Daily Telegraph has provided a quote: "The skill of Tom Keneally is that he write with a large scope but his stories are engagingly intimate."  I don't disagree with this.   The storytelling will shift out to a broad focus at times, but he is particularly skilled at zooming in to focus on other characters, changing the tone of the story as adeptly as if he had stepped into their skin.  However, this has led me to feel like the focus of the book was in the wrong place.  I was really interested in Colonel Abercare's story, but it was all backstory, told passively and quickly.  Major Suttor REALLY annoyed me, and Alice Herman's story reminded me too much of the plot of The Paperbark Shoe, which in my opinion was a far superior book.  Sorry, Mr Keneally.  I don't think I like the shifting focus approach.  I like a character that I can get behind and stay behind to the point of emotional impact.  I think in this book, the result of the constant shifting was to make me distant from all of the voices.

The other thing that really bugged me about this book was the amount of exposition.  As a student of creative writing, you get told to jump straight into the conflict, into an inciting incident and save all of the telling details for later in the beginning of the book... but the very beginning of this book is full of telling paragraphs which attempt to catch the reader up to where the character is in their life at that moment, describing their home lives, and not really showing us much about the situation at all.  I found the sections about Alice Herman particularly stilted, as the book could go several sentences in a row without varying the sentence beginnings.  (She did this, she felt that, she knew this.)

Eventually I did find a way into this book, and I finished it, but I have to say that it fell well short of my expectations, and I hope that next time I read something by Keneally, I understand what all the fuss is about.

Sorry Mr Keneally.  I really do hate to write a negative review.

3/ 5 (I think I'm being generous.)

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