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A COMMONWEALTH OF THIEVES by Thomas Keneally Kirkus Star


The Improbable Birth of Australia

by Thomas Keneally

Pub Date: Oct. 3rd, 2006
ISBN: 0-385-51459-X
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday

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.