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'A River Town' Traces History Of Small-Town Life Down Under


By Thomas Keneally

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Doubleday, 324 pp., $24

Countries are often like onions: There are layers and layers to peel in order to understand them.

In his latest novel, "A River Town," Australian author Thomas Keneally, best known as the author of "Schindler's List," does a lot of peeling.

There are layers about the tough life of immigrants, particularly the Irish who flocked to Australia around the turn of the century.

There are layers about people coming to grips with a strange and unforgiving land where the heat and frequent droughts drive men and women to extremes. And there are political and social layers as early Australians try to figure out their place in the world.

But best of all, after all the peeling, there is a good story.

Keneally begins the tale in Kempsey, in the Macleay Valley, on the steamy sub-tropical coast of New South Wales. In the small community, recent Irish immigrant Tim Shea, his pregnant wife Kitty, and their two children are trying to make a go of it running a grocery store.

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Tim, however, has never quite mastered the art of economics. His creditors in Sydney give him three months to pay. He gives his customers four months.

Tim's easygoing manner makes him a target.

When the state government decrees that all grocery stores must close at 6 p.m., Tim, after hours, lets in an inspector who insists he needs sugar for his wife's tea party. He promptly fines Tim. To make the insult even ruder, the inspector keeps the sugar.

As Tim works his way toward insolvency, he has spiritual struggles as well. The police ask him to identify a woman who has died seeking an abortion. When he can't identify her, Tim becomes obsessed with trying to find her name. "Missy," as he calls her, haunts his dreams.

Tim's waking moments are sometimes not much better than his nightmares. A young girl wanders into town to try to get help for her injured father whose dray has slipped off the road. Tim unsuccessfully tries to save the father.

Out of a sense of guilt and responsibility Tim decides he must pay for the orphan's education with the nuns. In her own way, she will haunt Tim during the day.

In Australia, Keneally is well-known for his views that Australia should become a republic and renounce its allegiance to the British Queen. Within the book, he manages to poke his sharp elbow at Britain.

The English are bogged down in their fight against the Boers in South Africa. There is a contingent in the town that wants to send a regiment of mounted men to help "Mother England" in the Transvaal. In the local paper, anonymous letters, wrongly attributed to Tim, deride the "incompetence of British generals."

Tim struggles with moral devils as well. He has been smitten by a Tennyson-quoting alabaster-skinned town aristocrat, Whinnie Malcolm. Tennyson's poems echo through Tim's mind.

Tim also realizes that his most reliable friend is not another Irishman. Instead, he is Bandy Habash, a brown-skinned Muslim, who sells herbs and "tonics" from a travelling cart.

As if Tim's life is not complicated enough, he must cope with the possibility that his wife may have caught the Bubonic plague. She had gone to Sydney to fetch her sister, who manages to drag along a suitor, Joe O'Neill.

Keneally writes: "It was an old story: an uncle in the Macleay bringing out from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and sometimes Germany a nephew to become a slave-by-kinship. So was Australia populated."

By the time Keneally has finished the tale, the reader has a sense of relief. After all, with any more pages, Tim will find some new way to make his own life more difficult. But it's still worth peeling the onion.

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