In story of action, character, Australia is an essential part

March 28, 1993|By Bill Robertson | Bill Robertson,Knight-Ridder News Service

WOMAN OF THE INNER SEA.

Thomas Keneally.

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.

277 pages. $21.

It seems there is no limit to Thomas Keneally's imagination.

1980, this native Australian dared to write a novel, "Confederates," about the American Civil War. In his attempt to portray the mythology and the actual horror of war in another time and another country, he got it right. Two years later he dared again to go beyond his experience, this time with "Schindler's List," a novel about an arrogant Catholic industrialist who saves Jews from the Nazis in Poland during World War II. He got that one right, too.

I've always wondered what he might do with a book about his homeland, and now, with "Woman of the Inner Sea," I know.

The book, we are told on the dust jacket, is based on a true incident. But whatever the facts, they have been transformed into fiction that is rare indeed, a story of action, character and underlying moral sensibility told in a prose that is as white-hot as the Australian sun.

The woman of the novel is Kate Gaffney-Kozinski, a film publicist BTC from a wealthy family who marries wealth and soon bears two children, Siobhan and Bernard. They live a seemingly idyllic existence in a beachfront house in Sydney.

But Kate's husband, Paul, a contractor obsessed with work, is seldom around, and one day when Kate has gone off to discuss her marital troubles with her father, a tragedy -- the worst that can befall a parent -- occurs at home.

Trying to ease her inconsolable grief, Kate flees to Australia's interior, landing in the town of Myambagh. She takes a job as a bartender, going "in training for being beneath notice."

But Kate is too much of a primal force not to be noticed. She becomes friends with three tough but sympathetic men. Jack, the bar owner, looks out for her welfare, as does Gus, a farmer, and Jelly, who has entered local lore as the hero who once saved the town from a flood by dynamiting a railroad embankment to allow the rising water to run off.

As Kate begins to get a grip on life again, another flood rushes through Myambagh, and she must face another loss. Now she heads for the outback, traveling with Gus and his pets, a $H kangaroo and an emu.

When she can run no longer, she decides to return to Sydney and confront her husband and past life.

This synopsis makes Mr. Keneally's novel sound more linear than it is. The narrative line develops in odd and quirky shifts of fictional time, and you don't learn the full dimensions of Kate's sorrow and triumph until the novel's final pages. A casual reader might find the action puzzling at first, but the pull of the prose is so strong that attention must be paid. By mid-novel, you are hanging onto every word.

Although the novel is in many ways an adventure story, Kate is a character deeply rooted in the contemporary age of psychology. She has a rich and varied interior life to go with the action bubbling along on the novel's surface. Her Uncle Frank, a venal, rogue priest, calls her "the Queen of Sorrows." She is, in his view, "always a woman of rain."

Also giving the novel its texture is Mr. Keneally's portrayal of Australia itself, not only its exotic scenery but also its social contracts, forged in the country's convict and immigrant past.

At one point, Mr. Keneally writes: "For this was Australia where no one trusted eloquence. Where the man of the aphorism had to be watched. The elevated wit of Europe was the chain which had bound a thousand felons and provoked a million emigrations." And elsewhere: "That was Australia. Only peasants need apply."

Kate's marriage is doomed from the beginning because the Kozinskis, of Polish origin, and the Gaffneys, of Irish extraction, don't truly understand each other, despite their arch insistence that they do. Although they are Australians all, they are limited by the baggage of inherited pasts.

The unseen hand guiding Mr. Keneally's writing comes out of Australia, in this case a vast, forlorn, exuberant continent of the mind, where hope and sorrow coexist in an uneasy alliance.

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