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Keneally's mature insights into character

Tom Keneally, The Widow and Her Hero, Doubleday Sydney 2007, ISBN 978-1-86471-101-1. 297pp. Hardback. RRP $49.95 website

Keneally's mature insights into characterAlthough Tom Keneally fans might consider it heretical to undervalue the popular novels of his middle career, it seems likely that in retrospect Keneally’s earlier and more recent works will be considered his greatest achievements. The exuberant art of novels such as Bring Larks and Heroes (1967) and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972) focussed baby boomer yearnings for Australian identity. The skilfully crafted An Angel in Australia (2003) and The Widow and Her Hero provide mature reflections on the formative influences experienced by that ageing generation.

The author’s prefatory acknowledgements specify the setting of this story. Grace, the narrator, is the daughter of a Braidwood bank manager when cousin Mel introduces her to comrade-in-arms Leo Waterhouse. Although Grace knows from their ritualised attacks on one another that they are training for "something more exotic than ordinary soldiering", she could not have anticipated that they would become heroes and martyrs, much like the members of Operations Jaywick and Rimau, the 'real' wartime Australian commando raids on shipping in Japanese occupied Singapore. Grace and Leo marry in 1943, and enjoy happiness briefly, because Leo’s fate leaves Grace deeply scarred.

Grace, in her eighties, addresses her memoir to her grand-daughter, and Keneally makes her tale realistic and troubling. Grace is convincing because she admits her failings, her flaws, her doubts and her frustrations as a widow. Far from undermining the major themes of the novel, the complexity and humanity of Grace’s character place the forces that crushed Leo into stark critical contrast. As the details of Leo’s operations, capture, torture and execution become clearer, Grace’s resentment deepens and strengthens. Because she does not spare herself, Grace seems justified in taking offence on Leo’s behalf.

The betrayals are many. Within the Independent Reconnaissance Department for whom Leo and Mel work, senior military men who will never again go to war "find it politically inadvisable to defend them even from the enemy … that’s the burden of my tale". Leo promises that they will marry when he returns from a secret mission. Grace notes the Homeric idea that a man must "undertake a quest to earn the company and solace of his woman", a handy one for nations "organising their young for war and bloodshed". While she does not urge Leo on, nor does she question his naive commitment. She calls the men a "hiking-running-tumbling-paddling-infiltrating caste", but says that "most of them were babies, and I too a bush infant". Eventually, she says "I became educated. Widowhood was my education".

The US high command was "singing from a different hymn sheet". Macarthur, suspicious about Australia and Britain wanting to resume colonial suzerainty in South East Asia, saw their military adventures as gestures towards that end. Decades later Grace learns from an intelligence officer, that the Americans knew Leo’s team had encountered trouble because they had cracked the Japanese radio code, Ultra. They did not tell the Australians lest they take action that would alert the Japanese that their code was cracked.

Keneally's mature insights into characterLeo’s commander, Charlie Doucette, dubbed an "impudent cavalier" by Grace, and a "madman born out of his time" by Dotty (wife of one of Leo’s comrades-in-arms), finds heroic status in war. A regular soldier of the Royal Ulster Fusiliers, Doucette rescued people from Singapore, but his wife was interned. Leo’s father, an agricultural administrator in the Solomon Islands, is also a prisoner. Originally Grace finds it "easier to believe in my own death than in Leo’s" but Dotty’s fears about Doucette’s plans "put the first shock of panic into me".

Eventually, Grace and Dotty learn that their men are missing, possibly captured. Out for dinner in Melbourne, they resent the "home front warriors" dining around them. Grace writes a popularly anthologised poem 'To the Beloved Missing in Action', but finds that even after Japan surrendered, news came slowly. After some weeks, she learnt of the executions, but tried to be "brave for Leo’s sake—Leo’s presence still so strongly abided that I would sometimes forget that I had joined that venerable category know as War Widow". Grace dreads further information because she was "dazzled and disabled by its [the execution’s] vibrant blackness". The violation of Leo’s body is a barrier to healing. She fears new knowledge but is also ashamed that a widow should feel this way. She thinks she is a bad wife because she fears that if she learns more she might hear some "terrible, indigestible reality".

Years later, she is dragged to Canberra on a delegation to see the Minister, and is told that Leo and the others, possibly under torture, had betrayed knowledge of the newly designed British one man submersible craft they were using. "My ears were ringing. I knew I was failing Leo, not up to his strength". In the 1960s, her distress deepens when she learns that the British submarine failed to keep its rendezvous. Fearing the awkward questions of a researcher, the officer responsible for liaison used the suicide pill issued on that operation two decades earlier.

Grace remarries and is absorbed in her job as an English teacher, but Leo’s story resurfaces periodically with new details. She learns that Leo’s trial was a farce, with the Japanese simultaneously feigning respect for heroism and condemning the commando operation as breaking the rules of war. In the 1980s, Hidaka, the translator, shamefully brings Grace a diary Leo wrote on toilet paper for her. Grace breaks down howling and punching the old man. She cannot bear to read it for three weeks, but from the diary, she learns that they were proud to the last that ‘the bastards didn’t hear us beg’.

Unlike some widows, Grace is never troubled by her husband’s ghost. Perhaps this is because she didn’t want a hero because "a person is never married to a hero". She concedes that "the men were living according to Tennyson, whereas Dotty, and soon I, were determined to live in the age of Auden and TS Eliot." By illuminating so clearly the worlds of the hero and the widow, Tom Keneally enables the reader to understand why the two are separate and incompatible. To the extent that novels exist to provide insights into character, minds and decisions, The Widow and Her Hero is arguably Keneally’s best.



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