Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 9, 2020

The Book of Science and Antiquities (2018), by Thomas Keneally

The Book of Science and Antiquities was a rare disappointment from Thomas Keneally. I’ve read many of his novels, starting with his early adventures with modernism which I really liked—and so did the Miles Franklin judges who gave him the prize for Bring Larks and Heroes in 1967 and Three Cheers for the Paraclete in 1968.  But by the time he won international acclaim for Schindler’s Ark by winning the Booker in 1962, he was writing a different kind of novel… he had become a terrific storyteller, writing novels across a range of engaging and thought-provoking topics in more accessible prose.  I have read many of those too. So I was expecting to enjoy The Book of Science and Antiquities but instead I don’t really know what to make of it.

The novel moves in two parallel time frames: Shelby Apple’s narrative in the present day, in which he looks back on his long life as a celebrity film-maker; and that of Learned Man, who is a fictionalisation of the man we know as Mungo Man whose remains—dated to 42,000 years ago—were found at Lake Mungo in NSW in 1974. Keneally begins the book in an Author’s Note by acknowledging that it would be gross fraternal impoliteness for a white fellow to horn in on Aboriginal tales…but he goes on to write the narrative of Learned Man because the Palaeolithic humans from Lake Mungo speak of all our human ancestries, black and white.  Mungo Man is, says Keneally, a possession of all humans, a phenomenal treasure, a prophet for us all. Well, make of that what you will…

The creation of Shelby Apple as a documentary film-maker enables the story to range far and wide.  It includes Shelby’s presence at the original journey to Lake Mungo when the remains were found; journeys within outback Australia and Eritrean war zones with eye surgeon Ted Castwell (a fictionalised Fred Hollows); photojournalism in the Vietnam War; the Gurindji Walkoff; a sojourn in the Arctic and even one in a submersible.  The purpose of these journeys is to show that Shelby is a good but flawed man facing terminal illness but still determined to bring the world’s attention to important matters.

Learned Man, OTOH, pursues a number of symbolic quests of mystical origin.  He and one of his offsiders get messages from their spirit beings which authorise them to dish out payback justice and—in the finale—for Learned Man to sacrifice himself in a manner vaguely Christlike, that is, it’s a death chosen in order to confer benefit on others.  It was this narrative that lost me first, soon to be followed by the mystical meanderings of Shelby Apple, who seemed to think that Ted envisaged the hapless Eritreans as a new and nobler kind of human.


Yes, a rare disappointment from Keneally.  Born in 1935, he’s getting on a bit by now, but he’s still prolific.  His book before this one, Two Old Men Dying (2018) presumably has the same reflective qualities as this one, though I hope not the bathos of Shelby lusting after an old flame and his rather wooden wife taking it all rather well.  Update 10/3/20: I have learned from Beejay Simcox’s review at The Guardian (see link below) that Two Old Men Dying (2018) and this book are one and the same.  The Australian edition was renamed for the US/UK market.  I found myself wondering about the readers who’ve grown old with Thomas Keneally… what would my father have made of this book?  If he’d persisted with it, which I doubt, I think he would have been a bit scornful of old Shelby and his lack of dignity when it came to a last chance to pursue Louisa Wanstap.

If you want to read a book that imagines our prehistoric forebears in a more successful and thought-provoking way, find a copy of William Golding’s The Inheritors. I can’t speak for its scientific accuracy, but it’s an authentic depiction of the way homo sapiens behaves.

Update 10/3/20: For another slant on the issues raised by this book, see Beejay Simcox’s review in The Guardian.

Author: Thomas Keneally
Title: The Book of Science and Antiquities
Interior design (whatever that is, the book is just text in chapters, though it did have a helpfully large font) by Kyoto Watanabe
Jacket design by James Jacobelli, jacket illustration by Ivana Sepa
Publisher: Atria Books (Simon and Schuster) 2019, first published in 2018.
ISBN: 9781982121037, hbk, 289 pages
Source: Kingston Library.  (Which is puzzling.  Why did they buy the American edition of this instead of the Australian edition published by Penguin Random House?  Maybe because this edition is a more durable hardback??)



  1. TK hasn’t improved with age. I don’t bother reading him any more. The most recent that I read and enjoyed was Towards Asmara (1990), the beginning of his fascination with Eritrea I think. The most recent that I read and disliked was Bettany’s Book (2000) where he flirts unsuccessfully with post-modernism. Though I listened to and enjoyed his account of writing Schindler’s Ark.

    And he definitely would have lost me at Aboriginal protagonist and spiritual beliefs. Not his business!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, mysticism and spiritualism loses me no matter who writes it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘Just text in chapters’? The art of text design is a highly complex and very important one. The text font, type size and leading; the line length; the width of the upper, lower and outer edges and the gutters; the size of the chapter drop; the font, size and placement of chapter heads; the font, size and placement of folios and running heads/feet … all these decisions require a great deal of knowledge and design skills in order to produce a pleasing, legible and appropriate page design. I’m a bit surprised at your dismissive comment, Lisa! Poor page design is immediately evident. Good page design is often unnoticed, unfortunately.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fair point… I suppose I’m so used to good text design that I take it for granted and I couldn’t see anything special that explains why it’s acknowledged in the verso page when usually it’s not. In fact, I’ve never seen this before, or never noticed it if it was there. (Occasionally I see a little addendum about the font that’s been used but that’s always about the font, not about the person who chooses it).
      I certainly notice it if there’s something special like the first edition of Gould’s Book of Fish or some kind of extra flourishes… I don’t know what you call them but sometimes there’s a little ?icon at the start of each chapter (e.g. a bird in a book referencing birds) and sometimes that’s different for each chapter. Sometimes there’s a complex layout as is Rosa, Memories with Licence where there are lots of photos that need to be lined up with the text. I certainly notice those kinds of things, especially since the birth of self-publishing where so often any complexities in the layout causes all kinds of failures.
      So yes, you’re right, there are unsung heroes working in many aspects of publishing that I know nothing about…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Those little flourishes/icons do have a special name – I came across it a year or so ago – but can I find it now. All my searches of Google are not bringing it up. I think it was probably in a review of a gorgeously designed book that had those little “things” and the reviewer knew what they were called. I should have written it down!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Those little design elements are called ‘dinkuses’. Cheers, Teresa (no ‘h’)

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved all your comments in the publication details at the end. I think every book has interior design – even if it is plain. I’ve come to realise over my years of blogging that book design is not just the cover but the font, the font size, the margin size, the chapter title design if there are chapter titles or numbers, the page numbering stye, etc etc. Every bit of it is designed, some just to a house style and others specifically for the book, so when we see those book design awards, they aren’t just about the cover. At least I think that’s right.

    As for this book. I haven’t read TK for a long time. Not because I specifically don’t want to, but because he doesn’t seem to be high priority for me these days. That’s a very good question you ask about the American edition at your library?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oops, I see that Theresa had already commented on the design issue. I just read your comment and immediately answered before reading the comments!

      Liked by 2 people

    • (I see from your next comment that you’ve seen my reply to Theresa’s comment…so I won’t revisit what I’ve already said).
      I like the way Keneally writes about everyday Australian issues, in this case prompted by the repatriation of remains to country. I think he’s a bit like the character in this novel, a good if flawed man, who tries to bring attention to issues of importance to public attention. Keneally uses popular fiction to do it.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Umm. I’ve not read *any* of his works and this certainly doesn’t incline me to do so! But maybe the earlier books would be a better option!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah no, let’s not judge him on this one. There are people who say he is the Balzac of contemporary Australian fiction…

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Yes, I think to write that it would be ‘gross fraternal impoliteness for a white fellow to horn in on Aboriginal tales’ and then continue with such a narrative kind of smacks of a literary privilege of a bygone era. I know there are enormous shades of grey here but the wording he uses makes me a little uneasy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is very tricky, isn’t it? By coincidence, just this morning I’ve been chatting about this very issue with a reader who’s challenged me about my review of You Will Be Safe Here. (It’s by a Scottish author writing about South Africa).
      For me, the question here is, who can write about Mungo Man? Can anybody? I agree that he ought not to tell any stories that have been handed down since time immemorial, but that’s not what he’s done. He’s made up his own version of a lifestyle and a traditional law and spiritual beliefs. Just the same as other authors who’ve fictionalised prehistoric beings. The problem here is that apart from in Australia, there are no descendants of other stone age societies to claim ownership or take offence. Does that make it different? Some would say yes, others would say no, and then there are people like me who aren’t certain. Shades of grey, as you say.
      Why, I wonder, hasn’t an Indigenous author written about Mungo Man? (Other than in an academic context, of course, I bet someone has done that). I’d take a guess and suggest that maybe contemporary Indigenous authors want to bring other issues to our attention, and maybe they too feel that it would trespass for anyone other than those who live on that country to write about him.
      And yet it is an important story, and so is the issue of repatriation of remains which he addresses with passion…

      Liked by 2 people

      • Mungo man – and I think there are 3 or 4 fossilized remains – dates to a best estimate of 40,000 years ago. I think until we have evidence to the contrary we should assume these are people from near the beginning of Aboriginal occupation of Australia, and not a different species or evidence of an earlier wave of occupants. Certainly it seems the local indigenous people have this view and some or all of the remains have been returned to them.

        I think Keneally is intruding on the beginnings of current Aboriginal belief systems, and to be honest I am astonished and disappointed.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. By god, he churns them out, doesn’t he? 😜

    Liked by 1 person

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