SECOND OPINION: The Soldier’s Curse by Meg and Tom Keneally

Review published on August 11, 2017.

This is a page turner that has real depth but is also a very entertaining read. An historical novel with a slow burn murder mystery at the heart of the plot, but that is by no means all that is going on in this novel. Fans of Thomas Keneally will love The Soldier’s Curse recognising familiar themes and his ability to bring the past to life -in this case, Australia’s colonial history. However, readers may also notice a slightly different style to the prose that must be part of the input of Meg Keneally. The idea for a series of novels featuring Hugh Monsarrat and the outline of the plot for this novel were written by Tom sometime ago but not turned into a completed work until now in this collaboration with his daughter.

I am pleased to say they work well together because I was a little sceptical of this joint venture, even though I have been a fan of Thomas Keneally for a very long time. From the first few pages The Soldier’s Curse won me round so the writing gene must run in the family. The story is set in an early 19th century British penal colony about 40 years after Botany Bay was founded. The authors cast a modern eye over the clash of cultures with the indigenous people, the Birpai, and the internal conflicts within the settlement as soldiers and prisoners attempts to build a society – the beginning of modern Australia. The Keneallys have a calm unemotional tone that lets the drama of a story to speak for itself.

The plot is totally absorbing, every bit as good as Tom Keneally’s other historical novels. The murder mystery is grounded in revenge and the tensions generated in this harsh world and is totally believable. The characters are strong and drive the plot, true to time and place. I have no doubt that the creation of Hugh Monsarrat can sustain a new series. The Soldier’s Curse is gripping and realistic to the end, a tale of tragedy and cruelty but also compassion and endeavour. The prose style is smooth and elegant making this novel a real pleasure to read.

The novel is the biographical tale of Hugh Monserrat, from English law clerk to convict detective, desperately seeking to keep his friend Mrs. Mulrooney’s from the gallows. It is also a tale of Australian life and intuit societal structures. As such the history is every bit as good as other literary Australian novels set in the same time – Richard Flannigan’s Wanting or Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and The Lieutenant. There are scene of a flogging and a hanging that are visceral and ‘raw’ that makes you wince with the brutality and inhumanity of the times but are integral to the story.

Port MacQuarie, New South Wales an outpost commanded by Major Shelborne, his wife Honora attempts to make the enclave a better place for everyone but particularly the women of the colony. Hugh Monsarrat is prisoner clerk to the Major, Captain Diamond; the second in command is a cold fish, a deeply unlikable and dangerous man. When Shelborne heads an expedition to find new fertile lands to cultivate, Honora falls ill, Dr. Gonville seems unable to help as she deteriorates. Mrs. Mulrooney does her best to care for the woman and Monsarrat offers what support he can. When Honora dies and poison is suspected the investigation is left to Capt. Diamond but Hugh Monserrat is the only man willing and able to conduct a proper inquiry into what happened.

Thomas Keneally is a prolific Australian novelist with a solid body of work over the last 50 years. Most notably Schindler’s Ark in 1982, which won the Booker Prize that year. His fiction covers a broad a spectrum, my favourites include Confederates (American Civil War) and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (Australian race history). I look forward to the next Hugh Monsarrat outing.

Paul Burke 5/4

The Soldier’s Curse by Meg and Tom Keneally
Point Blank 9781786071996 hbk Nov 2017

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