Recently I read Stephen King’s latest novel, Fairy Tale. Repetitive and moving at too leisurely a pace, it was far from his best and reminded me that even great writers can produce a second-rate book.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached the new novel by a writer as gifted, popular and prolific as Tom Keneally. Not that Keneally has anything in common with King other than that both are highly successful authors no longer in their youth. Rather, my anxiety stemmed from the fear that Fanatic Heart may demand a critique that could be misinterpreted as a lack of respect for an author I revere. After all, not every historical novel is a Wolf Hall, and even great authors may have, if not feet of clay, a soft toe or two.
I need not have feared. Yes, Fanatic Heart is a lengthy novel at more than 450 pages. Yes, Keneally indulges in very detailed descriptions. Yes, there are many more named characters making brief appearances than any reader could possibly recall. But this all adds up to the literary equivalent of a huge canvas depicting an abundance of scenes in extraordinary detail.
The central character is John Mitchel, a Presbyterian and a lawyer, an asthmatic and a reformer and an influential journalist who was born and raised in largely Catholic Ireland. You can look him up on Wikipedia, but Fanatic Heart makes better reading and arguably does more justice to the man and his wife Jenny.
Along with Mitchel the reader experiences Ireland during the potato famine, an Ireland under horrendous British rule. For his outspoken journalism and championship of Irish independence, Mitchel is sentenced to 14 years transportation: ‘The Treason Felony Act of 1848 had declared that it was a statutory offence punishable by up to 20 years’ imprisonment even to “imagine” let alone “compass or devise” that the British monarchy would ever lose sovereignty over Ireland, or any other part of Her Dominions.’
Thus, Mitchel is sent to Bermuda for a period before ending up in Tasmania, known at the time as Van Diemen’s Land. His treatment as a prisoner is surprisingly lenient compared to what one may imagine from the history books, perhaps because he is a political prisoner and not someone who has stolen a loaf of bread.
It turns out Mitchel, as a Ticket of Leave holder, is unexpectedly happy in Tasmania and is eventually joined by his wife and children. He is a devoted family man and an exemplary husband. But his restless reformist zeal leads him, after many a failed attempt, to escape to the US with his family, where his reputation has preceded him. He again becomes well-known as a journalist but also, surprisingly, as a defender of slavery, believing black people to be inferior creatures incapable of enjoying freedom and also that they were still better off than the Irish peasant.
In spite of everything he has fought for and achieved, Mitchel is still susceptible to believing some of the more repugnant fallacies of the time – Keneally skilfully complicating our understanding of this until now rather heroic character. He continues to strive for Irish freedom and even tries to persuade the Russians to invade Ireland.
So Keneally presents an exemplary hero with unforgivable flaws. But he does so much more. His picture of an Ireland of the 1840s, of the Tasmania of that time and of the still recently colonised and independent US all draw the reader in as if the mid-19th century were just yesterday and as real as ever a yesterday is.
You don’t need me to tell you Keneally is a brilliant storyteller, but with Fanatic Heart he
proves it once again.
Fanatic Heart by Tom Keneally
Publication: 1 November 2022