In this markedly Australian novel, Keneally has used his nation’s history in a tale that explores a number of themes and concerns of his life. Shelby Apple, a lead character, is an ageing film-maker. Facing a diagnosis of possible terminal cancer, he will look back over his life and his family relationships (longstanding, but not always smooth). His first major success was filming around the discovery of “Learned Man”- apparently 40,000 years old. Passing through his career, we are told of his experiences around this, in the Vietnam War, recording the battle for Eritrean liberation from Ethiopian rule, undertaking Arctic travel – all significant periods in his working life. But he also needs to come to terms with – like Keneally – ageing and approaching death.

The discovery of Learned Man was not just important in terms of Shelby’s early filming career, but was a significant archaeological discovery of “international” significance. This will have continuing fallout as more modern, political concerns evolve around the nature of respect for the views of indigenous people and their beliefs – regardless of the requirements of “tourism” or academic research themes. A battle still being fought. It becomes important to Shelby that Learned Man’s remains are returned to the local tribe.

A careful, but very detailed construction of Learned Man’s life will be created and linked throughout this novel. Setting aside the belief that as other “advanced” civilisations have come and gone, the aboriginal cultural tradition, albeit located in hostile desert conditions, has survived for over 40,000 years, mostly intact until the mass emigrations of recent centuries have placed it in danger of collapse. Shelby will believe that Learned Man might represent a significant mental and spiritual shift in the development of humankind to our “advanced” current thinking, talking people of today. He will present Learned Man as extra special in a spiritual sense too, as he leads in the practises that are needed to keep the people “in balance” with others and their environment both, thus preventing chaos.

Taken together, the two themes reflect on family life, morality, values, community support, co-operation or violence and maintaining peace – the principles and the realities for both the indigenous Australian and one from a First World or Western culture – over many millennia. A minor hope of one character is whether humans could make other leap in spiritual development and create a better way for people to live. Not something that has obviously happened at the moment – rather the reverse. But the requirement for balance is surely not just an issue for the local tribal people, also a wider lesson for all people of all cultures.

A novel then of ideas, especially about the nature of people and where we are heading as a race. Do people learn from experiences, their own and others? Can an individual effect serious change or does it take more? Do seemingly local wars have implications and impact for us all? Will we evolve to something better? Ideas that have more than Australian implications.

Hilary White 4/4

The Book of Science and Antiquities by Thomas Keneally
Sceptre 9781529355215 hbk May 2019