This can create a kind of accidental comedy, as when Shelby explains that people in Eritrea suffer from dreadful eye problems, but the country is “innocent of ophthamologists”, or that Learned Man is “a Time Lord who had consumed millennia”. It doesn’t prevent Keneally’s novel from being passionate and heartfelt, but it does leave you wishing he had spent longer polishing it into a form that was more than just good enough.
It arrives on UK shelves as The Book of Science and Antiquities, a more studious and genial appellation, but decidedly less funny. The gain in poetic decorum comes at the expense of its distinctly Australian pith, that gloriously inscrutable cultural mix of no-bullshit literalness and bone-deep irony. Is The Book of Science and Antiquities a sly existential joke, or an entirely solemn endeavour? It’s billed as the latter, as Keneally’s most candid work of fiction to date, a kind of grand human hymn. But there’s a wink or two that suggests he is chuckling into the cosmic void... The Book of Science and Antiquities lacks JM Coetzee’s caustic cruelty, or Philip Roth’s grotesque libidinousness. Shelby isn’t delightfully awful, he’s just tiresomely ordinary. Perhaps this is the novel’s lurking punchline – that the mundane can be mythic, and the mythic, mundane. The joke would be funnier if the women in Keneally’s novel weren’t confined to roles of warm-bodied consolation (save the occasional “tigress” or “calyx of desire”). There is a Learned Woman, too, but her story remains – tellingly – untold.
The resulting novel is a mixed bag. There is a sense of too many elements — both narrative and thematic — being shoehorned in. Some of Shelby’s reminiscences feel irrelevant, as if Keneally has included them mainly to fill space, or because they mirror the author’s own experiences. An account of an episode aboard a ship, when Shelby tries to seduce a young film producer under the nose of his wife, certainly falls into this category...
Has Keneally captured anything important about human life 42,000 years ago? Probably not. But he has clearly had fun trying, and so will readers of this book.
While thomas Keneally, best known for Schindler’s Ark, tends to blow hot and cold nowadays, you can still rely on the 83-year-old’s fiction to be vigorous, big-hearted and terrifically direct... Yet Keneally risks oversimplifying some big questions, and, while Shelby’s first-person narration is engaging, the book ultimately stands or falls by its portrait of humanity at the dawn of language.
Audacious, but ever so slightly risible.