Miles's Reviews > A Family Madness

A Family Madness by Thomas Keneally
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's review
Feb 26, 2014

really liked it
Read in February, 2013

In this book Second World War Eastern European Belarusan nationalism meets Australian league rugby and suburban angst.

The portrayal of the obscure self-justifying struggles of Belarusan nationalists, cooperating with the Nazis and the Soviets, trying to carve out their own nation, casually dismissing their participation in the slaughter of Jews (that's my family they are talking about.... my recent Jewish ancestors lived in Belarus and many were killed there by Nazis, probably aided by Belarusan nationals) is all very interesting.

We've all probably read about the war from the German perspective, but an Eastern European small nation perspective is different, and enlightening.

The interleaved second story of the book is set in Australia, where a minor league Australian rugby player, Terry Delaney, works out his marriage and an affair with the daughter of some Belarusan refugees, who have carried the madness of the war years into their modern sunny Australian reality.

The book is a mixed bag. I found it difficult, as I always do, to keep all the characters in my head. It is obvious that the Belarusan tale is going to eventually collide with the Australian tale, but the use of nicknames and lack of explicit stage directions made me unsure of how the modern day characters were related to the Second World War characters. In the end one can figure it out, but it takes some work, and perhaps even a second reading if you are slow about such things, as I am.

The author also wrote "Schindler's List" and knowing that tells you something about where his heart is. I don't know Keneally's biography, but surely he must have been in Europe in those years. He writes like a native. The Belarusan half of the novel feels intensely real, almost documentary, in the best sense, and the reader really learns something about a world and its attitudes. I did not find that the Australian suburban rugby-playing marriage-adulterating booze-drinking apocalypse -awaiting modern world was equally well-drawn, or enlightening.

So, yes, if you have a hankering to really get a new look at small time Eastern European nationalist politics under the Germans and Soviets, this book is actually quite interesting. I did not find the contrast with suburban Australia to add very much. The book was interesting, but not compelling.
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