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HALL OF FAMEon 21 November 2004
Allan Sheriff, circled by wire in a desolate place, has a story to tell. Actually, he has two stories: one, his own, describing the life of a writer in Hussein's Baghdad and the other with the same theme. The difference is that the first tells the story of the second. Why is Sheriff fenced in at a remote location of almost indescribeable desolation? What abominable crime has put him there? In answering these questions, Thomas Keneally has returned to the top rank of novelists. He excels again with this modern tale of international politics, survival in an oppressive regime, and personal tragedy. This is among the finest of Keneally's works.
Sheriff, a reputable writer, is recruited by Iraq's Great Uncle to post a message to the world. The "sanctions" imposed by the victors of the First Gulf War have brought poverty, lack of food and water and depleted medical facilities to their country. The whims of an arbitrary government, the absolutist nature of the leaders - already a dynasty in the making, and needless casualties from a meaningless war are minimal when contrasted to the universal suffering caused by curtailment of the oil exports. Great Uncle wants Sheriff to expose this injustice through a novel depicting conditions. Sheriff, who might have been willing and able to perform this feat, is afflicted by a more personal crisis - the loss of his wife Sarah.
"Alan"? "Sarah"? This couple is close friends with Matt McBrien and Andrew Kennedy. Are these names typical of a Middle Eastern people? Keneally deftly arabesques away from pigeon-holing these people and their circumstances as "Arabs" or even Muslims. In depicting Sheriff's relations with "Mrs Carter", for example, Keneally shows the universality of a mother's grief, the shameful machinations of a government engaged in useless and costly war, and the mixed feelings of soldiers. He doesn't want to distance his characters from the reader - and the use of Anglo-Celtic names in a novel about a suffering people brings us closer to their realities.
With his vivid, expressive style, Keneally uses Sheriff to guide us through the harsh world of a despotic regime. Whatever his faults, Hussein's Iraqi people was the true victim of a higher level of despotism - trade embargoes and external demands by international agencies. Keneally describes a nation living on the edge of survival. The people may have the Great Uncle's Blue Overalls at their doorstep, but they know it wasn't the Great Uncle that cut off their drinking water or intercepted the medicines.
The reader can always rely on Thomas Keneally for stories of intense feeling and wide interest. He surpasses many of his earlier works with this modern story. That the "Coalition of the Willing" have launched a crusade against the Great Uncle doesn't reduce the value of this book. Keneally uses Sheriff to expose many facets of Iraqi life. His wit and sardonic humour are more pointed here than any previous work. Keneally's sense of justice is monumental. It's a sense to be admired - better, to be emulated. He knows there are no simple answers to human questions, and he displays that view in this exemplary book. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 November 2011
This is a nightmarish novel obviously set in Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the mid-1990s, though the country is never named and all the individuals, for some reason, are given British names. It's all there: the regime is headed by a tyrant, nicknamed Great Uncle; he has many palaces, is paranoid, expects impossible and sometimes entirely whimsical demands to be promptly fulfilled, visits terrible punishments on those who fail him in any way, and he has a son even more brutal than himself. There are horrific descriptions of the recent war against the neighbouring state in which chemical weapons were used by one side and fanatical martyrdom by the other; and there are references, under other names, to the Shia minority in a Sunni state.

The story is told by Alan Sheriff, a writer, who belongs to a group of intellectuals - authors, film and television people, an architect - some trying to keep their distance from the regime, some ambitious enough to serve it. Alan belongs to the former group; but Great Uncle wants him to write, inside a month, a novel, to be published under Great Uncle's name, which exposes the sufferings of the country under the sanctions imposed on it. For both personal and political reasons Alan does not want to write it. Political reasons include his knowledge that the United Nations' Oil-for-Food programme never reaches the poor for whom it was intended, but is being used to enrich the governing clique. Personal suffering in his private life had already driven him to a quixotic action which he meant to follow with suicide, so he is not all that frightened for his life; but Great Uncle has made it clear that Alan would not be the only person to suffer if the book does not appear: so would a friend of his who was to supervise the work, and the friend's wife also.

Could Alan engineer his own death at the hands of the regime in such a way that he does not compromise the life of others? The method he chooses is itself one of terrible cruelty (and, I think, out of character) - grotesquely, it does not work. So will he deliver the book?

We can perhaps guess one aspect of the end; and the introduction, which has Alan a prisoner - but now in an inhuman camp for asylum seekers in Australia - has told us more; but there are still some unexpected twists in the last few pages. They are, I think, not the best pages in the book: those are the many earlier on which etch into your mind the horrors of Saddam's Iraq.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 May 2014
Thomas Keneally is a novelist who is always ready to put his characters under great political or moral pressure. ‘Schindler’s Ark’, winner of the 1982 Booker Prize, addressed a Nazi Party member who saved more than a thousand Jews from German and Polish concentration camps. Here, in his 26th work of fiction, Keneally focuses on a dictator nearer to our times, a thinly disguised Saddam Hussein as the eponymous tyrant, cosily referred to as Great Uncle, the Chosen One, Regulator of Laws, Supreme Judge and Overchief.

The narrator is an eminent author, Alan Sherriff, whom we meet at the beginning of the book in a detention camp for asylum seekers located in a desert region of an unknown country. He has been detained there for 3 years, in limbo, the government unwilling to grant him asylum or send him back to likely death or torture. In ‘The Visitor’s Preface’ the author describes such detainees ‘as a virus too toxic to be released’. Whilst incarcerated Sherriff has been awarded an UNESCO Human Rights Award, has been visited by two writers and decides to tell one of them his story, which he describes as ‘the saddest and the silliest’.

Great Uncle’s oil producing country is in dire straits, sanctions on buying its oil have been imposed by the West [although they seem to be circumvented by the First Family and their circle], there is an embargo on medicines that punishes ordinary people rather than the leaders and it is at war with the Others, a war in which he does not hesitate to use poison gas. Sherriff had previously escaped a gas attack, unfortunately launched by his own side, whilst fighting in the Summer Islands. He is married to a TV actress, Sarah Manners, one of Great Uncle’s favourites – not necessarily an advantage, and is well known in the West for writing a book of short stories.
Sherriff introduces us to a swathe of well-drawn characters including Mrs Carter whose son disappeared 6 years ago and Mrs. Douglas, whose nephew was shot and hanged after excessive pH and chlorine levels in one of Great Uncle’s swimming pools caused a nasty rash between the Overchief’s legs.

I understand that the author’s giving these and other characters Anglo-Saxon names is because he wanted to emphasise that such totalitarian rule is not confined to certain Abrabic-speaking or Muslim regions. However, for me this was not a wholly satisfactory decision as it kept inserting itself between me and the story.

Great Uncle requests Sherriff’s help in a matter of prime national importance, an invitation that he cannot refuse, and much of the book describes the building of pressure on him to deliver what he has agreed to but doesn’t believe is possible. Keneally introduces several twists and surprises that with great skill. There is a macabre scene when Sherriff and his wife meet in a cemetery and one wonders what research the author had done to make this so authentic.

Keneally is at the top of his form in describing the threat emanating from Great Uncle that, in its quiet and restrained presentation, is much more chilling than that associated with his M16-toting thuggish son, Sonny, who so clearly demonstrated his pique at the national football team’s defeat. Great Uncle is paranoic about those he chooses to meet and the physical and mental barriers he puts up between him and his dear children. It is fascinating to read how each of the main characters adapts to live as securely as they can under his authoritarian rule. The consequences of fleeing the country are made very clear.

Keneally drags Sherriff through a whole series of emotions, all very believable, showing a man tottering on the edge who sees alcohol or death as the ultimate refuge. He also sets up a genuine race against the clock and we see the effects of the days passing on Sherriff and those responsible for him. Sherriff oscillates between depression, thoughts of suicide and euphoria, all exacerbated by his drinking.

Keneally has been openly critical of the way that asylum seekers have been treated by the Australian government and, whilst this is a central theme, this book never becomes polemical. Sherriff sums up the difference between America and his homeland ‘in our world survival is the difficult achievement and in America human intimacy is.’ In this book Keneally, not quite on top form, shows us what a man will do to survive.
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on 17 January 2005
Prolific, celebrated Australian novelist Thomas Keneally is in fine form with this intelligent and thought-provoking novel of the dilemmas and dangers facing a writer that comes under the special attention of a despotic ruler.
'The Tyrant's Novel' opens in one of the 'double-walled gulags' in the desert towns and suburbs of an unidentified country. Imprisoned within this fortress we find the novel's protagonist, Alan Sheriff, who recounts his tale of life and escape from another unnamed country that is under the grip of 'Great Uncle', a country that recently had a protracted conflict with the 'Others' and is currently straining under international sanctions. Whilst it is not difficult to unmask the countries in the contemporary international context, one of the great strengths of Keneally's novel is that the issues raised are translatable to any artist working in a state that represses freedom of expression.
It is easy to empathise with Alan, and other characters such as Matt McBrien whose survival hinges on the protagonist's decisions, in this finely crafted and extremely readable political novel. My only minor reservation - and hence the four star rating, rather than a maximum five - is that ultimately the novel appealed more to my head than my heart: I suspect that I felt somewhat emotionally detached from the characters because Anglo-Celtic names are used for them despite the novel being set in the Middle East. Whilst Keneally deliberately chose this nomenclature so that Western readers will perceive them as ordinary people in the street, it unfortunately made the characters less real and, ironically, limited rather than enhanced my emotional involvement in their plight.
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In this novel within a novel, Australian author Thomas Keneally returns to the political themes which won him prizes for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Voices from the Forest, and Schindler's Ark. Keneally has always been at his best depicting ordinary people facing extraordinary pressures, especially from governments bent on totalitarian rule, and this contemporary allegory is no exception. Taking place in an unnamed oil-rich country in the Middle East ruled by a tyrant who calls himself Great Uncle, the novel centers on Alan Sheriff, a short story writer given one month to write an "autobiographical novel" for which Great Uncle will take full credit. Sheriff, we learn in the opening chapter, is telling his story to a western journalist from a detention camp in an unnamed desert country, where he has languished for three years.
Keneally increases the impact and universality of the story through his clever use of names. As Alan Sheriff tells the journalist, it is important for his credibility that he be like a man you'd meet on the street, which is much easier with a name like Alan-"not, God help us, Said and Osama and Saleh. If we had Mac instead of Ibn." Alan believes his "saddest and silliest story" will interest Americans, despite the fact that his country and the US are now enemies.
Through Alan's story, the reader meets Mrs. Douglas, whose nephew, not careful enough of the pH level of Great Uncle's swimming pool, was shot and hanged from the ramparts; Mrs. Carter, whose son has been missing for six years; Alan's beloved wife, Sarah Manners, an actress who has become unemployable; Matt McBride, another writer who becomes head of the Cultural Commission where he works for Great Uncle; and Louise James, an American who would like to get Sheriff to come to Texas as a visiting professor. All these characters contribute to a stunning conclusion as Sheriff tries to write the required novel.
Easily the best Keneally novel in over a decade, this serious and thoughtful novel has significant political ramifications. The characters are "ordinary people," much like the rest of us, caught in extreme situations, and Keneally builds up enormous suspense as the long tentacles of the tyrant grab everyone in their path. Though most readers will recognize the unnamed country and the tyrant, it is a tribute to Keneally that their specific identities are totally irrelevant to his themes and plot. The author makes it clear that a government's manipulation of the people's perceptions through staged events is not limited to the Third World. Mary Whipple
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