A RIVER TOWN by Thomas Keneally


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 Keneally's 21st novel (Woman of the Inner Sea, 1993, etc.)--a story based on his own grandfather's life--is another morally weighted, if at times overdrawn, celebration of one man's dogged battle with forces larger than himself in turn-of-the-century Australia. Over the course of one hot summer, Irish immigrant and storekeeper Tim Shea will find his new life in small-town Kempsey nearly destroyed by a sequence of seemingly random events. As the story begins, this thoughtful, imaginative man, who's saved enough money to give up log-hauling and buy a general store--which he runs with the help of pragmatic, outgoing wife Kitty--is troubled by the death of a young woman at the hands of a local abortionist. Since no one has identified her body, the woman's head has been severed, preserved in a bottle, and given to a local policeman, who travels with it around the countryside seeking information about her identity. But only Tim, haunted by the sight of the head, seems to care; and while his rescue of two children from an overturned cart makes him temporarily a hero, his sense of alienation is intensified by an unfamiliar mood in the town. When leading citizens want to send troops to help Britain fight the Boers, Tim's opposition soon leads to a boycott of his store. Like Job, he's then visited by further disasters--the suicide of one of the rescued children, a bubonic-plague quarantine, false accusations, police entrapment, and imminent financial ruin. By autumn, though, as personal confessions and distant victories change the town's mood once again, Tim, who has his own prejudices to overcome, is at peace: ``For by then it was generally acknowledged that [he] wasn't the dangerous fellow some had earlier claimed him to be.'' Rich in period detail and local color, but, here, Keneally's penchant for moral tub-thumping mars an otherwise absorbing story. (Author tour)

Pub Date: May 5th, 1995
ISBN: 0-385-47696-5
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1995


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