"At what point a foetus takes on the properties of a human individual is a knotty problem, but whether the answer be medical or metaphysical, it is unlikely to be precise. No such uncertainty affects the narrator of Thomas Keneally's novel. He springs into awareness at the instant a laser beam penetrates the womb to determine whether the configuation of his brain was all it should be: 'It didn't happen violently and I suffered no shock. But the rose or weed of knowledge opened in my hand, and I, as it were, fingered all its petals.' From then on the foetus has access to the reservoir of his mother's consciousness, sees through his mother's eyes, and yet cherishes his own quizzical and fiercely independent personality. With the detached resignation of an observer who recognizes he can do little to help, he watches as his parents' marriage founders, his mother is manoeuvred into a mental home, her rescue is secured by the enigmatic and gnome-like Warwick Jones and together mother, foetus and Jones flee to Australia. Until at last the foetus, not in utter nakedness, still less in entire forgetfulness, bursts upon the world it has surveyed for so long.
"Thomas Keneally has a miraculous capacity for conjuring up strange visions and curious places with a certainty of touch that totally convinces. Never has he voyaged into stranger lands than in this witty, wise and formidably plausible venture into a woman's womb."
You remember the old myth about Eden. How Adam and Eve ate of 'the tree of the knowledge of good and evil', and how the Ancient of Days, the cosmic link, the substantial boss, God himself was pained at them for touching that tree of all those in the forest. He, It or Whoever saw then that humans, who are built for innocence, cannot tolerate it. Listen, their blood vessels and the flow of their blood, their sinews, the wonderful tree of their veins, the magic reef of their nervous systems are built on a cellular structure appropriate to a decent and beastlike artlessness. But the bastards would rather be dead than innocent.
On the first day of my awareness, the strong fragrances of this tree of the knowledge of good and evil brought my mother to the Hologram Experimental Unit at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. Getting there, she had caught the underground to Russell Square. Going to Russell Square always gave her a girlish intellectual thrill, because it was near the British Museum and reminded her of the reading room there, and of George Bernard Shaw and Marx and other such people who used the reading room.
We crept up to street level from the tube platform in one of London Transport's sighing lifts. It had been a rainy morning in London, and the complexions of the people in the lift seemed, even more than usual, like complexions preserved in formaldehyde, bottled and left in some medical museum that has run out of funds. But my mother and the West Indian liftman looked at each other and understood straight away that they were foreigners amongst all this dowdy flesh - my mother Irish, milk-white tending to russet at the points of the cheeks and forehead and when certain lights were on her hair; and the West Indian, of course, gleating chocolate. My mother felt better for that smile. They maintained it between themselves while the lift emptied and until my mother had passed him. She needed kind smiles, poor sweet bitch. For neither of us then knew, though we soon would, what a studied barbarian my begetter, Brian Fitzgerald, happened to be. Sal's ignorance derived from hertemperament and the culture she'd been raised in, in a pub in Clare and at the Sacred Heart Convent, Enniscorthy. My ignorance had better grounds. I neither saw, nor knew; nor in all my capsular magnificence did I have two opinions to rub together.
From the Collins hardback edition, 1979.
This page and its contents are copyright © 2001 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.Return to Thomas Keneally page.
Last modified: December 14, 2001.