Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 5, 2016

Napoleon’s Last Island (2015), by Tom Keneally

Napoleon's Last Island I know that authors must write the books they feel impelled to write, but as I put the book down at the end of my reading, I thought that this could have been a more compelling book if Tom Keneally had focussed his attention differently in this novel, Napoleon’s Last Island…

According to the prologue, (mischievously entitled ‘Terre Napoléon’ which was the name bestowed on Australia’s southern coast by the French explorer Nicolas Baudin), Keneally became intrigued by the story of Betsy Balcombe when he visited the Napoleon exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. Some of the memorabilia was credited to Betsy Balcombe, who had lived on the Mornington Peninsula and whose descendants had inherited the relics.  This novel is his story of the relationship between 14 year-old Betsy and Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) when they were neighbours on the island of St Helena in the southern Atlantic where Napoleon was exiled.

Now, as it happens, I am simultaneously reading Xavier Herbert’s chunkster Poor Fellow My Country and yesterday (before I read the concluding chapters of Napoleon’s Last Island), I came across a scene in which a character at a social occasion meets the British General who commanded his brother’s last fatal day at Gallipoli.  Jeremy Delacy, characterised as an inherently reasonable man normally of great restraint, can’t control his rising rage, and decks the General, who his brother had described in a letter as a ‘homicidal maniac’ who cared nothing for the fate of the men.  The two books came together in my imagination when I considered what it might be like to have custody of the Emperor whose ambitions caused 65000 casualties at the Battle of Waterloo alone, 17000 of whom were British.  I thought of the treatment of Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milošević in our own time, and of the Nuremburg Trials and the Tokyo Trials.  The desire to force retribution for great wrongs can very easily become vengeance.  The very human story of the British soldiers guarding Napoleon could have been a much more powerful story than the one that Keneally has written in Napoleon’s Last Island. 

Instead what we have through Betsy’s empathetic narration is a sympathetic portrait of Napoleon, and her interpretation of his most emphatic gaoler,  Sir Hudson Lowe, as petty-minded.  Because the house chosen as Napoleon’s residence, ‘Longwood’ isn’t ready, Napoleon becomes neighbour to the Balcombes while he temporarily lodges in a pavilion nearby their home, named ‘The Briars’.  At first Betsy is afraid of him, calling him the Ogre, but she warms to him, and being of a wilful and capricious nature, she charms him with her cheeky behaviour.

Admiral Cockburn, when waiting on the arrival of their prisoner, says that he knows their ‘visitor’s features very well’ but under the affable governorship of Captain Mark Wilks (who presides over St Helena’s role as a centre for the slave trade), retribution is mild.  They have chosen Longwood as the most uncongenial residence on the island.  They insist (with some humour) that Napoleon never be addressed as Emperor or Majesty but rather as General.  Provisions for his household are generous (which suits Betsy’s father well since he is the Superintendent of Public Sales for the East India Company and he supplies the island with produce). And from the first, Betsy’s sympathies are engaged.  ‘It was a heartbreaking scene, his sauntering to his camp bed in the pavilion.   No wife with him, no son’. (p.81)

Her family becomes more close to their notable neighbour than the authorities would like.  Napoleon had, after all, resurrected his ambitions with a previous escape from exile on the island of Elba and they are watchful for escape conspiracies.  The island has been under the control of the East India Company but the British Government decides to increase its precautions.  Before long Governor Wilks is replaced in 1816 by the more punitive Hudson Lowe, nicknamed Name and Nature by the witty Betsy, because he is Lowe by Name and Lowe by Nature.  With vice-regal power never before issued to the island’s administration, he cuts the budget for provisions, he ramps up the garrison, he scrutinises everyone’s mail and purchases and is overbearing and officious as well.  (According to Wikipedia, there was a garrison of 820 men and Royal Navy ships circled the island.  It also says that Lowe took some small steps towards emancipating slaves).

Lowe’s scrutiny of Balcombe reveals some ‘indiscretions’ and the Balcombes are packed off to Britain – and the story fizzles out a bit after that.  I have to say that the novel was never really very engaging anyway, except in terms of triggering thinking about what it might have been.  There is an allusion, for example, to the Pope’s magnanimous treatment of Napoleon’s mother despite himself having been held captive by Napoleon.  Betsy notes this, but limited by her (albeit precocious) 14-year-old perspective does not ponder the personal cost to the Pope.  What motivated this magnanimity?  How does politics interfere with human emotion?  Do those soldiers garrisoned on a bleak island in the middle of nowhere feel sorry for Boney too, or do they feel resentment about his existence?  In the small world of the British military, were there some among the islanders who felt the same ungovernable rage that made Jeremy Delacy in Poor Fellow My Country avenge his brother’s unnecessary death?

If put aside my discontents and attend to the novel as it is, Napoleon’s Last Island is still an unsatisfactory story.  There is too much padding in this novel, too much repetition of Betsy’s really not-very-interesting escapades, too much of her unvarying opinions, too much of her character assassination of Lowe, and too much of what she thinks is her own cleverness and wit.  There is a very silly episode involving what I assume is an invented sexual escapade and an even sillier explanation thereof to the teenage Betsy who witnessed it.  At 426 pages it is much too long, leading to the suspicion that Keneally’s research plus his imagination both needed reining in.

Meredith Jaffe, however, at The Guardian thought it was brilliant, Peter Pierce at The Australian was impressed, but Phillip Dwyer at the SMH had some doubts though he thought it was generally entertaining.  (Beware: there is a spoiler in his review, one which I have meticulously avoided).

©Lisa Hill

Author: Tom Keneally
Title: Napoleon’s Last Island
Publisher: Vintage (Random House/Penguin), 2015
ISBN: 9780857984616
Source: personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $32.99

Available from Fishpond: Napoleon’s Island


  1. Sometimes I get the impression that an author has an idea and forces it into a story, no matter what. There was a book last year (and can’t for the life of me think what it was) and the author said they’d tried elements of it in another book years before, it hadn’t worked and she put it aside (the right move!). Years later, she saw a way to use it (and the result was good). Anyway, it sounds like the idea behind this book should have had a little more time to ‘rest’!


    • Well, I wonder if it’s a case of timidity in editing a well-respected author. But then, read those other reviews, other people think it’s terrific. I mean, *Peter Pierce* thinks it’s terrific, and he’s not afraid to call out books that aren’t up to scratch.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re absolutely right – imagine having to edit a book you didn’t love or feel enthusiastic about?! I couldn’t do it (prefer to be a reader).


        • Me too! I have a lot of respect for editors and the work they do.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting! Our book club has just read “Betsy and the Emperor” by Anne Whitehead, covering the same material. She is a historian so the book is a bit long and dense with all her detailed research. There’s not really a lot about Betsy, and left us with unanswered questions. I think I’ll give the Keneally book a miss!


    • Hi Anna (thank you so much for Selma!) – that would be the one mentioned in the Dwyer review… LOL if I hadn’t already had quite enough of Betsy Balcombe I might have wanted to read that!


  3. I listened to this book a few weeks ago, and it flowed along well enough but then Keneally’s stories always do. You make a good point about all the deaths caused by Bonaparte’s ambition, but I have always suspected that the British felt some respect for him, and in any case Keneally is Irish.
    However my real opinion, and his early books are some of my favourites, is that Keneally writes too many books and too facilely.


    • Oh yes, I loved the ones that won the Miles Franklin. But if you look at the list of books at Wikipedia, well, at the rate he churns them out, it’s no wonder some of them are less well-written than others.


  4. I’m sorry to hear that you were disappointed in this one. I’m going to a session in a few weeks at the Sydney Writers Festival on Napoleon, and it features both Tom Keneally and Anne Whitehead. I was interested that the book came about after he saw the Napoleon exhibition in Melbourne, one that I enjoyed very much and I think maybe you saw too from memory. I’m not sure when I’ll ever get to reading this book, but I do have it in the house waiting its turn.


    • Don’t worry, you’ll have a great time at that session, Tom Keneally is a great raconteur and I’d go and hear him talk any time.
      Yes, I did see that exhibition, and I loved it. I went to the talk beforehand too, (which I don’t often do) and that made it even better. Winter Masterpieces this year is Degas, that should be good:)


  5. I just finished reading a book set during the Napoleonic wars, so this book appeals to me. I wish you had thought more of it. I saw a review for one of his other books yesterday that was less than stellar (The Daughters of Mars). Which ones have you read that you would recommend?


    • Hi Naomi, I liked Three Cheers for the Paraclete and Bring Larks and Heroes, but they are modernist in style and not to everyone’s taste. Of his more commercial fiction, I like Shame and the Captives, The Widow and Her Hero, Schindler’s Ark and The Tyrant’s Novel. You can find my reviews of these by selecting Keneally from the drop down category list under ‘Who to Find Here’. BTW You might like Napoleon’s Double by Antoni Jach, I liked that too. (Again, see Jach in the categories menu).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve just reviewed Daughters of Mars and really enjoyed the story. Interesting to hear your thoughts on this one as I’m planning on going to see him do a reading when he comes to the UK next month. I’m intrigued he’s listed on the cover you’ve posted as Tom and not Thomas… I wonder why that’s the case…?


    • I don’t understand why he messes about with his name, there seems to be no rationale that I can see and I don’t remember if anything was said about it in the biography that I read recently.
      Amazing that he’s still rampaging about doing readings, I hope I have that much energy when I’m his age!


  7. […] of Australia’s most successful novelists what he should write about! You can read my review here if you want to know why I had the temerity to say […]


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