The Book of Science and Antiquities

Thomas Keneally

Sceptre, £20

THIS novel could not carry more associations with death if it arrived from one’s favourite bookseller by horse-drawn carriage preceded by a gentleman in top hat and mourning clothes.

At 83, Thomas Keneally has survived a brush with death and seems content to embrace it rather than shun the inevitable. The Book of Antiquities is thus a book of philosophy, a novel that seeks significance in the most vital arena.

This is a story of how to die but also of how to live. If it reeks of death, it also bristles with what makes life worth living. The two, of course, need not be parallel stories but intertwined.

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Keneally takes this notion into the novel’s structure. It consists of alternate stories: one of Shade, whose bones are found 42,000 years after his death, and the other of Shelby, a modern Australian.

The style is deceptively facile. Keneally, curiously, remains an underrated writer. This may be because he is astonishingly prolific with more than 30 novels, more than a dozen non-fiction works and two children’s books to his name. It may owe something, too, to his commercial success. There persists misgivings in some sects of the literary world over writers who can make money from their craft. Yet Keneally has remained consistently engaging, provocative and original down the years. Schindler’s Ark (renamed Schindler’s List to chime with the film), Confederates and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith are simply outstanding novels and the octogenarian shows no signs that his powers are diminishing.

Indeed, he has added elements of the deeply personal to his fiction. His most recent, Crimes of the Father, investigated with compassion and intelligence the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church where once he was a seminarian.

The links in The Book of Science and Antiquities are more explicit. Shelby is an artist who tells stories through film rather than in word but he suffers from the oesophageal cancer that once struck Keneally. The fictional character’s brother is a doctor who dies from cancer, as did the brother of Keneally. Shelby is described as a large man and Keneally would never be mistaken for Wayne Sleep.

It is, perhaps, even more intriguing to link Keneally to his main characters’ thoughts of death and principles of living. The author once spoke of how his fear of death had left in old age, memorably stating that death was not the fly in the cosmic ointment but the cosmic ointment itself.

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This level of easy acceptance is normally the product of hard experience. "Being human is a test that kills us" is merely one of the sentiments expressed without rancour in a book of wonder and regular brilliance.

Keneally can stray uncomfortably close to the realms of Raquel Welch and One Million Years BC in his portrayal of the Learned Man whose bones were found in a dried-up lake in Australia. The ancient world can reek of cliché but he gradually shrugs this off to paint a convincing portrait of primitive man with advanced thought and feeling. Shade becomes a figure of substance rather than of caricature.

Shelby, of course, is more confidently assembled. It is not just the resemblances to the author that make him recognisable but his drives, sins and concerns in the modern world. He is a flawed man, prone to morbid introspection, susceptible to guilt but determined to be a force for good.

There is a laying down of innocence in both main characters. Shelby, for example, finds he has built his career on death, profiting from the death of his partner while filming a Vietnam documentary. He remarks: “I thought how stupid I had been to countenance death.” He maintains a principled stand to search for truth even if he finds betrayal, most spectacularly in himself.

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This summation may make the novel seem pompous or even dull. However, Keneally’s art is to make the profound accessible. The important is rendered seamlessly. The stories of Shade and Shelby run side by side and they are drawn together in concerns and in fate. The simple message is that there is a communality to the human experience that spans 42,000 years.

But there is also the fascinating investigation of how DNA can change and how humans can change in the most fundamental way. Was Shade the result of a sudden, great leap forward in the mind and spirit of man? Is Shelby a front-runner in the race of the species towards a deeper consciousness, one espoused by many leading theologians, including Richard Rohr? This theme is only lightly touched but it leaves its mark.

Keneally, too, is far too nuanced a writer to illuminate the darkness without also investigating it. Shelby travels to war zones regularly. He knows the capacity in mankind for sacrifice, goodness and love. He also experiences the species’ capability for what can only be described as evil. On an expedition to war-torn Eritrea, he looks at a wall that has been disfigured by bayonets.

“I looked at the chart [on the wall] and thought I knew nothing about humanity, that I was a mere visitor, and the sickness came over me and I went out into the garden and vomited.”

Thus Shelby looks at the horror, the horror and has to flinch, even momentarily. But he endures to face his ultimate test. In his view of death he comes to resemble not just the author but Shade, his forefather, who walked on the same Earth, felt the same emotions, faced the same fate 42,000 years earlier.

Gently, but with a commanding assurance, Keneally takes us to the end – or is it another beginning – of reshaped form or reformed atoms?

There can be no certainty. There is always pain. It infects, even disfigures the leading characters. But there is also the love that forgives and sustains. There is hope that endures, a reality that helping others is a spiritual necessity that owes nothing to a belief in deity but everything to fulfilling a distinct, even innate purpose.

Keneally invites the reader “to gaze calmly on the limitless sea of death”. In a book that teems with journeys and voyages, both spiritual and physical, he finds something true, brave and powerful to say about mankind’s fate. He has danced with death and produced something invigorating.