In his more than 40 years as an author, the Australian-born Keneally has made a specialty of writing about history, both in fiction (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Schindler’s List, for example) and in popular nonfiction (notably American Scoundrel, his biography of the Civil War general Dan Sickles, and The Great Shame, about the Irish diaspora). Here, he turns his novelist’s eye to the first four years of white Australia, folding the dreary facts and figures into the more engaging elements of character and narrative.
The New York Times
… anyone interested in the history of Australia, or in the remarkable adventures of men and women struggling to survive in extreme circumstances, will find much to enjoy in A Commonwealth of Thieves.
The Washington Post
Keneally (Schindler's List) offers a novelistic chronicle of the founding of the colony now known as Australia, focusing on the first five years, 1788 to 1793, when the initial flotillas of boats carrying convicts, their military guard and administrators arrived in New South Wales. At the book's center is the relationship between Arthur Phillip, the pragmatic first governor, and Woolawarre Bennelong, the Aborigine who eventually served as a liaison between the settlers and natives. Keneally describes their first meeting "as fateful and defining as that between Cortes and Montezuma, or Pizarro and Atahualpa." Using their relationship as a prism, Keneally depicts the instances of tense commingling between the two communities. His historical narrative is so detailed as to at times feel dutiful. He's most successful serving up some of the dozens of pithy mini-portraits of the lowborn settlers. Like Robert Hughes in his seminal The Fatal Shore, Keneally seeks to correct some of the clich s that have arisen. He's careful to point out that the few thousand convicts sent to the colony were hardly the worst of the worst. Keneally's new consideration won't replace Hughes's definitive work, but with its colorful and eloquent prose, it makes for a compelling companion piece, one that credits Phillip for most of the colony's success. Maps. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Booker Prize winner Keneally (Schindler's List) seeks to illuminate the human side of England's colonization of Australia. In the 18th century, the English penal system was severely overcrowded, and transport became the preferred alternative; when the 13 American Colonies revolted against their British rulers in 1775, convicts were transplanted to Australia. Colonial administrator Arthur Phillips is portrayed as a heroic bureaucrat who pursued the belief that criminals could be rehabilitated, an opinion Keneally credits as a founding principle of the nation. Bypassing the pre-European era, though spending appropriate time documenting the culture clash with the Eora, the aboriginal occupants of the Sydney region where the European colonists arrived, Keneally follows individuals from their beginnings as petty criminals to their new lives in the wild land. At times reading like the work of a diarist, this is a more compelling story than the bare facts customarily offer. Shorter than Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding or Frank Welsh's Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land, Keneally's book has more texture and less scholarly vigor and thoroughness, though the story he so lovingly details is more entertaining. Recommended for public and academic collections.-Robert Moore, Bristol-Myers Squibb Medical Imaging, MA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
A celebrated novelist (Schindler's List, 1982, etc.) and historian (American Scoundrel, 2002, etc.) writes the early history of the English settlers-the convicts and their keepers-of his native Australia. Keneally begins with a striking image from 1788: Eleven ships, crammed with criminals, tossing on the Pacific between Antarctica and the continent that will come to be known as Australia. The author tells the stories of those ships and passengers and offers illustrative and often illuminating commentary on subjects including the practice of transporting lawbreakers, life aboard an 18th-century ship, the flora and fauna of New South Wales and the culture of the aboriginal people who would see their way of life-thousands of years old-forever altered by disease and displacement and despair. Keneally excels in his descriptions of affairs on both sides of the world and in his mastery of both minor details and major concepts. He tells us, for example, that the aborigines could not say the letter s and that they practiced the ritual removal of an incisor from the jaws of young men coming of age; he also takes us through the political, sociological and economic forces in England that led authorities there to export their petty criminals. In many ways, this is the story of Arthur Phillip, a sturdy, judicious man who led the First Fleet and who remained in Australia through its very difficult and dangerous first years. (The Second and Third Fleets would arrive during his tenure.) Keneally ends his story with Phillip's departure and then in an epilogue lets us know the fates of most of the principal players. Among the more notable of these were William and Mary Bryant and their two children.Keneally distributes across several chapters the story of their remarkable open-boat escape from Australia to Timor (3,254 nautical miles). Only Mary survived the final leg of the journey to England, where James Bosworth, intrigued by her tale, gave her money and hope. Thoroughly researched, artfully written, engaging and instructive.
"A readable, anecdote-packed account of a tragic colonial experiment." —Boston Globe"Superb. . . . Keneally uses his novelist's skill to construct a lively mosaic from contemporary accounts." —Financial Times"Evocative. . . . Weaving together many individual stories, Keneally paints an impressionistic picture of a society in the making." —The Washington Post Book World“Keneally deploys his skills as a novelist to give depth to his work as an historian.” —The Economist