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Sunday 4 February 2018

‘The Soldier’s Curse’ by Meg and Tom Keneally

Published by Point Blank,
2 November 2017.
ISBN: 978-1-78007-199-6 (PB)

In this historical novel, set in an Australian penal colony in 1825, Hugh Monsarrat, transported for life for forgery of legal credentials (lucky to escape hanging according to the ultra-harsh laws of the time) and one of the few literate convicts in the colony, has risen to the position of trusted clerk to the colony’s commander Major Shelborne. Even so, Monsarrat is not free and never will be unless he can earn partial freedom through a ticket-of-leave. Until then, he has to watch his step all the time; one action, even one word, out of place could mean losing all his privileges. But at the same time his education and higher status have set him apart from his convict fellows. Virtually his only friend is the Major’s housekeeper, the sharp-tongued but warm-hearted Mrs. Mulrooney, herself a former convict who has now earned her ticket-of-leave but is quite happy to stay where she is. She is particularly happy to serve the Major’s kind and beautiful wife Honora. Another of Mrs. Mulrooney’s favourites is the genial young soldier Fergal Slattery and he and Monsarrat have a friendly relationship. It is when Major Shelborne sets off inland to explore, leaving the colony under his second-in-command, Captain Michael Diamond, that Honora begins to sicken. Her illness progresses and there is nothing that the settlement’s doctor can do to alleviate it. Meanwhile Diamond reveals his twisted and deeply sadistic personality culminating in the brutal flogging to death of a convict for a relatively minor offence. And then Honora dies before her husband returns. Death by arsenic poisoning is suspected.

Monsarrat and Mrs. Mulrooney know that Honora and Diamond had known each other previously and that she had been afraid of him. But who would take the word of two convicts? Especially when Diamond has Mrs. Mulrooney arrested for murder? If convicted, as seems all too likely, she will be hanged. And after all she was with Honora throughout her final illness. She had the opportunity, and the means since arsenic, sold for rat poisoning, was available. But Monsarrat, knowing how much Mrs Mulrooney loved Honora, feels that she cannot be responsible and the doctor and the Catholic Priest Father Hanley agree with him. Monsarrat suspects Diamond who has disposed of the arsenic. He begins to investigate on his own account, but will he be able to establish her innocence in time to prevent the death sentence from being carried out?

This is a very impressive work by a well-known literary writer – one of Tom Keneally’s novels, Schindler’s List, was filmed as was another novel, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, while his daughter Meg is a journalist and radio producer. The narrative style is somewhat leisurely, but this gives the reader time to absorb the detailed historical background and the fully realised characters until the story reaches its dramatic conclusion. Highly recommended.
Reviewer: Radmila May

Thomas Keneally began his writing career in 1964 and has published thirty novels since. They include Schindler's Ark, which won the Booker Prize in 1982 and was subsequently made into the film Schindler's List, and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Confederates and Gossip From The Forest, each of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His most recent novels are The Daughters of Mars, which was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize in 2013, Shame and The Captives and Napoleon's Last Island. He has also written several works of non-fiction, including his memoir Homebush Boy, Searching for Schindler and Australians. He is married with two daughters and lives in Sydney.

Meg Keneally is the co-author with her father Tom of the Monsarrat series of historical crime novels, as well as of the upcoming historical crime novel Fled.

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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