I don’t know why I haven’t read more of Thomas Keneally – he’s one of Australia’s more notable living authors and he’s prolific. I have two of his Miles Franklin winning novels on the TBR (Bring Larks and Heroes, 1967, and Three Cheers for the Paraclete, 1968) but haven’t got round to reading them yet. I read Schindler’s Ark when it won the Booker back in 1982, and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972) before that, probably when I did HSC. I admit I wasn’t much impressed by The Tyrant’s Novel (2003), but Keneally’s not the only author to focus on the vexed and troubling issues of our time at the expense of writing a good novel, and his heart was in the right place. When I heard him speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival, I bought the first of what will be his three volume history Australians, Origins to Eureka and began reading it on the train on the way home, (only to have The Spouse whisk it away to read as soon as I got home).
I had forgotten that The Widow and her Hero was longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2008 when I saw the audio book at the library. I just liked the cover image, and the title was appealing. It turned out to be riveting, which is just what I needed for the daily commute. It’s been a depressing week at work, with more mind-numbing paperwork imposed by bureaucrats so far removed from the real world of schools that they have forgotten just how busy we are in term 4. I set off for work feeling grumpy about it, and came home from work feeling fed up, but as soon as the CD player kicked in with this story, I forgot all about the annual implementation plan and the professional development plan and amending the strategic plan with its ink barely dry because now there is a student engagement policy and program to write by the end of the term and a school performance report and we have to Be The Revolution too – 88 pages! and that’s just reading about it! – not to mention finishing my student reports and proof reading other teachers’ reports and staff reviews and the library stocktake and trying to find some time to plan and correct library lessons for the 18 classes I like to teach every week *sigh*. (Who’s got time for punctuation? Not me!) All this mumbo-jumbo vanished as I turned out of the schoolyard and I became lost instead in the heart-wrenching story of Grace and Leo Waterhouse, and her never-ending journey to come to terms with her widowhood.
Improbable as it seems, soldiers’ remains are still being found. There’s to be a new WWI memorial in a French field somewhere, and a search in Vietnam led to the repatriation of some remains last year. I remember watching something about this on TV, and felt for all those involved: the veterans who conducted the search, tormented at leaving their mates behind; the other family who so desperately wanted their man back home on Australian soil; and the family that wanted their man left in peace where he lay. Keneally explores something of this family’s reluctance to re-engage with their loss in his book, for over her long, long lifetime, Grace is confronted again and again with revelations about how her husband came to lose his life.
Leo Waterhouse was one of a unit led by the charismatic Charlie Doucette who commanded covert operations against the Japanese in World War II. The first, placing limpet mines on enemy shipping in Singapore Harbour was a success, but they were captured when they tried a second time. While most of the book is narrated by Grace, (who wants to set the record straight in a memoir for her niece), when Leo’s secret diary comes to light it tells the horrific truth about what happened to the men in captivity. Much and all as we know about Japanese atrocities, it’s still appalling to be reminded of it, even as Leo minimises the barbarity for his wife’s sake.
Equally horrific are the betrayals, official and unofficial, that underlie events. Grace begins the journey of her widowhood wanting to know how the failure to rescue the men occurred, but official denials, secrets, and finally fresh revelations bring only a renewed sense of anger, confusion and loss. The story of her husband’s death becomes ‘history’ to others, a subject for books and television programs; there is also an emotionally draining parade of confessional visits from those who wish to unload their guilt before they die.
In the initial pain of loss, Grace is bewildered by the suddenness of her transformation from war-bride to a new status as war widow. But over time she begins to judge the notion of wartime heroism, and finds it wanting. While not denying bravery and sacrifice, she wearies of what she calls the ‘Boys Own Adventure’ aspects of it and resists its glorification. She fears that Leo might be revealed as less of a hero than thought, and is discomfited to realise that she has come to resent her husband’s loyalty to Doucette. In her old age, she achieves a kind of reconciliation to events, but it seems tentative. ‘Enough, enough’ she says, because it’s time, but one wonders what might happen if the Official Secrets Act unburdened yet more to torment her.
James Ley, at The Age condemned The Widow and her Hero as middlebrow. Barry Oakley at The Australian damned it with faint praise: ‘patchwork, but readable’. Penelope Lively at The Guardian found it clever and compelling while Adair Jones at The Courier Mail thought its ambiguities significant:
Keneally’s skill as one of Australia’s most versatile and interesting literary figures rests in such ambiguities. The author questions our need for heroes and the price we all pay for needing them. For the generation of Australians who lived through the terrible war and survived, men and women like Grace who are now past 80, this novel acknowledges the awful price they paid and gives us a glimpse into the cold shadow of a war that has never quite disappeared.
I liked it because it made me think about Australia’s preoccupation with military history from a different perspective.
Bolinda Audio seems to have the knack of casting just the right narrator for their audio books: Beverley Dunn is superb as Grace, and David Tredinnick is an utterly convincing Leo.
Author: Thomas Keneally
Title: The Widow and her Hero (audio book read by Beverley Dunn and David Tredinnick)
Publisher: Bolinda Audio Books 2007
ISBN: 9781921334498 BAB 071079
8 CDs, running time approx 9 hr, 30 mins.)
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library