A book review...of sorts.

I say `of sorts' because I've not really finished reading it yet. It's Thomas Keneally's `Australians. Origins to Eureka'.  I'm three quarters through about nearly 600 pages of Australian colonial history and it's taken most of the year to get that far. Some books grab you, pull you in and won't let go of you until they've thrown you around and shaken you up like a lil kitty in a front loading washing machine.  This is not one of those books. It's not a bad book by any means.  It's engaging and very well written. I just got to a certain point and was distracted by the novelty of my new Apple iPad.

Now, the meat...
Keneally's prose is guiding mix of historical fact with a leading novelist's ear for balanced story telling. There are a lot of details about the character and characters of the early settlement, both Aboriginal and interloper. (oooh that was very `PC' of me).  His sensitivity in weaving together, with respect and honesty the story of the local Aborigines and the relationship between the two peoples is refreshing and fascinating. Certainly from an Australian who went to school in the 70's where none of this was ever taught. (ooh, goody, lets learn about the Gold fields - again!)

Keneally demonstrates how the origins of the Australian national character, or at least the origins of the anti-authoritarian, knockabout, stereotype that we like to promote about ourselves, began.   He does mention the gold fields.  But he's more interested in the Irish martyrs and the politics that fed colonial revolution and the beginnings of a class war that still simmers ever so politely today. This is part of what marks it as different from the tedious, ignorant shite the NSW Dept of Education fed so many of my generation.

It's difficult, after reading about the American Revolution and the characters involved in drafting the Declaration of Independence, (John Adams biography specifically) to not make any comparisons between the genesis of these two great social experiments.  America with it's origins in religious extremism tempered over time with influences of the Enlightenment, began with an argument for justice against a complacent and arrogant ruling elite. Australia began as a means to an end concerning what to do with the detritus of an extreme justice system born of the very same ruling elite.

It's refreshing also to read of convict stories that go against the widely perceived narrative of lives of unremitting torture, starvation and drunken tedium. It seems quite a few actually liked it here and thrived in the bright sunlight and alien landscape. There's no doubt that life was tough. But once a working economy began to take hold in the colony after several very hard years of starvation, lifestyles began to improve for many.  The children of these `First Fleeters' were far healthier and led generally better lives compared to their counterparts back home in England.

Writing this review and picking up the book again after several months has made me want to finish it.  Keneally has invested so much time into the details of colonial life in Australia but not in a dull, pedantic way. He provides a fascinating narrative timeline of how the colony established itself. How it grew from Sydney to exploring the country and establishing new cities such as Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. There's just so much that here about the history of my country that I never knew before and so much that I knew about but not in context with what was happening in the wider world at the time.

If you're an Australian interested in reading a great book about your history, this is, apart from Robert Hughes' `The Fatal Shore', the book for you. Just be prepared to invest a good amount of time to read it all the way through and don't be distracted by shiny objects. If you're not Australian, sorry, but there's just no ointment that I know of to cure that. Reading this book should go a long way in explaining why Australians are the way we are and how we got to be how we are in an epic and oblong way.