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Customer Review

14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Legacy of Odysseus, 10 May 2007
This review is from: The Widow and her Hero (Hardcover)
In the Western world, there is a long-standing tradition of the warrior-husband. He leaves home on some notable quest, urged to "return bearing his shield or lying on it". If he's on the shield, the assumption is that he died with honour during the quest. His wife is duty-bound to respect his venture and accept without murmur whatever Fate has dealt him. In this latest version of the Odyssean saga, Leo Waterhouse has left his wife, Grace, more than once. The first venture brought about the marriage. The second, only mystery and regret. In the hands of Tom Keneally, the story provides some new twists and he deals with them skilfully. A master storyteller, Keneally has lost nothing of his writing ability over time, as this fine addition to "war stories" shows.

Grace Waterhouse, in her nineties at the time of telling, has a woman's natural scepticism about heroism. Being abandoned isn't her idea of marriage, yet she cannot quell her admiration for her husband, Leo. He is a volunteer on a dangerous mission - sink Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour. The team he's with has done it once, will a second go be as successful? Grace has some help as she reminisces about Leo's ventures. There are those who followed events from the sidelines - the military base brass. More importantly, there are those visitors Grace has ambivalence about. She wants to revere Leo's memory, and she doesn't want it blemished by stories that might sully it. A sullied shield lacks proper honour for a hero. Finally, there is Leo's prison diary, scribbled on toilet paper in the solitude of his cell.

Grace also has a book about the quest. "The Sea Otters" by a British ["Pom"] journalist, Tom Lydon. Lydon's own quest is for information, and in his own way, he's heroic in its pursuit. There are questions of what happened, including whether precipitate action might have betrayed the mission. Grace is continually torn between her current life, blessed with a husband whose kind understanding allows her to keep Leo's presence alive without resentment. Those recollections are always present, yet they are incomplete. In the beginning, she knows only that Leo is gone, executed by the Japanese. The details of his journey to that end have eluded her. Those in government, who should have the records, aren't forthcoming with further information. She's urged to cherish the memories and not attempt to delve too deeply further. Is there something hidden she ought to know?

Heroism is the running theme throughout this story. Grace accepts it, but only up to a point. She's had many years to assess its worth and those who are deemed heroic. Leo's team leader, Charlie Doucette is the consummate "man of action". Doucette drives his group, training, learning new skills, some in novel devices - little two-man "folboats" and treacherous little one-man submarines, "Silver Bullets", developed by the British. Each new tool forces each of the men to give their utmost. They respond to the Boss' leadership, willingly following him in their dangerous, and often gruesome jaunt into Japanese waters. Doucette becomes a hero out of the classics. Consciously or not, Odysseus is his model, and he makes every effort to live up to it.

Keneally builds his story with even more finesse than in some of his earlier work. Adopting a woman's voice is bound to raise the tiresome issue of "cross-gender" writing. Keneally manages this task with aplomb. After all, he's done it before in "Woman of the Inner Sea". Here, he's aided by the times Grace lives in - the limited role of a wife in the 1940s, her repressed upbringing and the stiff mores of the era. Grace notes how free and uninhibited her granddaughter Rachel lives. As the tale unfolds, her view of heroism becomes tarnished, moving to that of loathing the concept. She becomes aware that Leo's loss was "of little purpose". At the end, all she seeks is justice, an elusive ideal at any time, nearly absent in war. Especially a secret war. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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Location: Ottawa, Ontario Canada

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