BOOK REVIEW / Looking for nowhere to be a nobody: 'Woman of the Inner Sea' and 'The Place Where Souls are Born' - Thomas Keneally: Hodder, 14.99 & 17.99

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In his new novel, Woman of the Inner Sea, Thomas Keneally strikes up an arch, chummy relationship with the reader - or 'bookbuyer' as he prefers to address us (thereby brusquely discriminating against the borrower, the shoplifter and the reviewer). He also keeps up the trying pretence that we are collaborating with him on the composition of the book. 'More correctly, she waits for you, dear bookbuyer, to construct her an essential town out of fragments of all the others', he informs us, for example, when his heroine, in flight from a traumatising family catastrophe, embarks on a train journey into Australia's arid heartland.

Often the chivvying authorial tone is weirdly reminiscent of that adopted by George Eliot in her early fiction: 'Reader] did you ever taste such a cup of tea as Miss Gibbs is at this moment handing to Mr Pilgrim? Do you know the strength, the animating blandness of tea sufficiently blended with real farmhouse cream? No - most likely you are a miserable town-bred reader . . .' Except that Keneally aims it in the opposite direction, at complicitous flattery: 'You can picture as well as anyone, dear bookbuyer, the country bedroom to which Jelly leads Kate . . .' Indeed, you begin to wonder why you aren't being offered a share of the royalties.

It's worth persisting through all these patches of pally mock-modesty, though, because the story is a strong one, and Keneally tells it with all his customary verbal richness and exactitude. He focuses on Kate GaffneyKozinski, the young cheated-on wife of a Polish-Australian real estate developer. Starting cryptically at the end, the narrative soon backtracks and takes us up to the fateful night when Kate goes out to dinner wlth her father, who hears, via a phone call, tidings so tragic he's at a loss how to tell her. Though it's deducible that the disaster involves her children, its precise nature is withheld until much later. Instead, the novel jumps forward to find Kate, newly released from hospital after a nervous breakdown, about to commence her flight from the self into the Australian interior.

The book is based on a true story told to Keneally by a wealthy young woman 'in an interesting city' a dozen years ago. By transplanting it to his native Australia, the author is able to play up the contrast between the corrupt, sybaritic beach culture of moneyed Sydney-dwellers which Kate forsakes and the older, harsh outback values she encounters on her trip. He can also show how her journey is opposed to the prevailing tendency: 'Australia is periphery. It dreams of and yet abandons the core.' Keneally writes perceptively about how this woman, who wrongly takes all the blame for what happened, struggles to transmogrify herself: 'She was in training for being beneath notice.' She wants to bury the chic heiress under anonymous layers of fat, and what she now looks for in a place is 'the great antipodean stupefaction': 'The oblivious town she loved beyond utterance: all the rich hours it let go wantonly unharvested.' But though numbness is the goal, her picaresque adventures on the quest (which include such hair-raising exploits as using dynamite to save a flooded town) ensure that she never slumps into the wishedfor insensibility.

In her introduction to Keneally's simultaneously published The Place Where Souls Are Born, about a journey into the American Southwest, Jan Morris writes that it is always fascinating to see how a novelist of the first rank handles a travel book. Reading these two volumes back-to-back may convince you, however, that this novelist does his best travel-writing in fiction. His new travel book is packed with intriguing observations and nuggets of knowledge and it's informed by a deep, wondering respect for the ancient Anesazi (cliff-dwellers who disappeared over 500 years ago). Keneally writes movingly of the danger of thinking yourself a young country if in fact you're an old one. But, to use a phrase from the the novel, none of it seems to have been 'absorbed in the cells'.