Keneally’s place as one of the most diverse living authors is confirmed by this, his 30th novel. It is surprising that few reviewers on this site have given it more than 3 stars, but those who read just for the excitement of the narrative are probably a little disappointed by this book. Whilst it is gripping in places, the author did not set out to produce a thriller or work driven by suspense. We know the fate of the main characters in the opening paragraphs: the main interest is in discovering how things turned out so badly. Whilst the story itself is both fascinating and enlightening, to me the real purpose of the book is an exploration of heroism: what drives us to do heroic things; what can restrain us when we feel the urge to do heroic things; and what impact heroism can have on the bystanders.
Like all of Keneally’s writing, this book is underpinned by extensive research. As well as being an enthralling examination of the human spirit, the novel is informative and instructive. The reader is taken convincingly to the streets of wartime Melbourne, and the language of the characters both reflects the naivety of the age and risks taken by those like Dotty Mortmain who push against the social confines. This ability to create “local colour” so convincingly is one of Keneally’s trademarks, and one that draws me back to his work time and again.
The events of the novel are loosely based around two strikingly similar missions, Operations Jaywick (Cornflakes in the book) and Rimau (Meramang). I haven’t been able to discover why the author chose to rename the missions, as well as the participants, but perhaps that was a concession to anyone still living who had some role in these events. There is an underpinning sense of frustration at how poorly the missions were supported in official terms, and Keneally (or the publisher’s lawyers) may have found it safer to treat characters as fictitious. Like many authors dealing with human failings, Keneally has certainly changed a few names before – even in the iconic Schindler’s Ark (List).
Keneally gets inside the mind, and heart, of his protagonist. We feel, more than just understand, her anger, frustration and resentment, yet the story has the redemptive threads essential to creating a sense of dignity, and even something uplifting.