A review of Tom Keneally’s Bettany’s Book

 Bettany’s Book has just been released in paperback. The generosity of Bettany’s Book leads us to not only follow the strivings of the Bettany family and those whose paths they cross, such as Sharif and Felix, the “Europeanised, educated natives”, who are heroic and tragic in their own way, but to equate these sufferings and imaginings to our own, so that the material becomes truly epic.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Tom Keneally gives you the feeling that he is interested in everything. As you speak to him he draws the pieces of your conversation into the voluminous encyclopedia of his brain, leaving the impression that even the most banal concepts are profound. Bettany’s book, Keneally’s latest novel, clearly reflects this drawing in of ideas, characters, conversations, and his generosity in sharing these ideas, or obsessions as he calls them, with his reader. Bettany’s Book traverses a wide terrain, moving physically from the interior of nineteenth century New South Wales to the modern Sudan, and metaphysically through a range of ideas from Stoicism to the politics of Aid, Christian missionary work, the Koran, the time/space continuum, the Big Bang, etc. The story begins with two orphaned and beautiful sisters, Dimp and Prim, the former, a film producer, who finds her great grandfather’s memoirs and the latter, who becomes an aid worker in the Sudan following a failed relationship with her University supervisor. The story moves seamlessly between the stories of Prim and Dimp, and the Dimp’s transcribed (and faxed to Prim in the Sudan) sections of Jonathan Bettany’s memoirs of becoming a squatter in the land known as “beyond the limits” in nineteenth century New South Wales. The stories are fascinating, and Keneally is a wonderful storyteller whose simple prose drives the narrative forward quickly, despite the books large size. But the story is more than just a good tale. The separate stories of the book are pulled together with strong themes of love and betrayal, the genetic links which bind generations, understanding versus prejudice, determinism versus free will, and above all the search for self which seems to form the backdrop of most great books. Keneally speaks modestly of his “temperamental fault”, claims that he tries to cover too much ground, and calls the novel a force of nature that may or may not work, but then concedes that you can look on this sort of writing as a streak of generosity on the author’s part. The generosity of Bettany’s Book leads us to not only follow the strivings of the Bettany family and those whose paths they cross, such as Sharif and Felix, the “Europeanised, educated natives” who are heroic and tragic in their own way, but to equate these sufferings and imaginings to our own, so that the material becomes truly epic.

The book is full of strong parallels, from the alignment of the past and the third world of modern Sudan, where morality takes precedance over self-actualisation and truth. The lives of Jonathan and Sarah involve betrayals that mirror those between Dimp and Brendan D’Arcy and between Prim and Sherif. Felix’s early defining grin parallels Sharif’s strange laugh after his torture session, both stoical grimaces in the face of the horror they have witnessed, and Jonathan, even as he destroys his father’s life work, is creating his own story, striving, like Old Bettany and Dimp later on, to leave some permanent justification of his life. There are times when the characters, separated as they are by time and place, even talk to each other, as with Sharif’s answering of Jonathan’s “It is the hours which determine how we travel through the years”(490), with “one betrays oneself, not in hours but in seconds.”(503). In my interview with him, Keneally speaks of his belief in the imperfectability of humanity and the beauty and truth which lies within these imperfections as being one of the defining themes of the book, as Yeats’ put it, “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Keneally tells me that he has taken an oath that Bettany’s Book will be his “last folly”, and from now on his novels are not going to be so inclusive. Let’s hope not.

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