Critical Review: The Tyrant’s Novel by Thomas Keneally

The Tyrant's Novel

The first thing I noticed about Thomas Keneally’s book, The Tyrant’s Novel, was that he chose not to use quotation marks to indicate dialogue. Silly that that should stand out, but as someone who puts great effort into correct punctuation usage, it annoyed me. Luckily, this annoyance did not last, because the second thing I noticed about this book was the way Keneally’s writing draws the reader in. He started with the end, with the main character and author of the book within the book, Alan Sheriff, in prison. We then heard how he got there as he told what he called “the saddest and the silliest” story.

* This is a full discussion of the book, so spoilers are below! *

Not far into the book the “saddest” part began. I was shocked when a regular afternoon ended with the sudden death of his wife, Sarah. Keneally did a brilliant job of letting the reader feel Alan’s grief without having him wail across the pages in a fitful and dramatic way. It seemed completely normal that Alan should want to kill himself, to the point where it was easy to forget that we knew he wouldn’t because we already met the future Alan. My eyes filled in the scene where Alan threw his nearly-finished novel into the river, after first burying the printed and digital copy with his wife. This felt more tragic than a suicide. It was a suicide, in a way. Though not the end of his life, this action did represent the death of Alan’s former life and former self.

I was relieved when Alan decided that instead of suicide, he would spend his days re-translating subtitles of classic movies. He seemed to be moving on and beginning to heal. In a sudden twist, and what began an agonizingly anxious part of the story, Great Uncle, the tyrant himself, asked a “favor” of Alan. Alan was to write a novel—a good one—in just one month, its subject matter decided by Great Uncle for his political purposes. While Alan would be paid generously, the novel would become Great Uncle’s own and publicized as such. Would he work strictly for money, writing something that was limited in creativity and time-restricted to the point of affecting quality?

The next pages of the book were like torture for me. Would he write it and “sell out” to save his life? Would he refuse and be killed, while also sentencing his friends to their death? Would he escape to a new land? When he finally said to his friend, “I don’t want to be a bastard,” followed by the disclaimer that he would, “write it if he could,” there was again some relief. But, as quickly as he agreed, he changed his mind and took to drinking instead.

He eventually began writing and interrupted it briefly to tell the heart-breaking tale of his time at war and the death of his friend. It seemed Alan would finally fulfill his death wish when he shared the tale with the dead friend’s mother, Mrs. Carter—a matter which breached national security—and was taken to prison. But he was saved again, this time by the novel itself. In the background was the ever-looming deadline and the nail-biting word count updates. Could he possibly finish in time?

I read the second half of the book more quickly than the first, as I could not stand the suspense. When it seemed that Alan was concerned about the coming deadline, he did something drastic—he had his wife’s dead body, along with his novel, exhumed. This was much worse than his agreement to write for the tyrant. In doing that, Alan took something written in a happy time, a book he spent years perfecting, and gave it to the undeserving tyrant to claim as his own. But, it did allow “the task” to be completed two days early.

Alan relaxed and thought briefly of his future love life when an ex-girlfriend visited him and proposed marriage. He considered it, and I hoped he would, for his own sake, find someone to love. Just as this possibility began to bloom, it was quickly ended when the rage-filled, grief-stricken Mrs. Carter stabbed Louise and killed her. Alan was whisked away from the scene of the murder and taken to Great Uncle. Was that the moment that would lead to him being in prison? Nope. Great Uncle was thrilled with the book and rewarded Alan with a new house and a personal driver. Alan immediately made plans to leave the country by way of oil barrel. He claimed asylum and ended up at a mental institution, then prison.

I was left wondering, what was the point of his exile? He left his home country for fear that he was the tyrant’s “caged canary,” only to end up in a more permanent and actual cage. He had been given wealth and privilege, but turned it down for the poverty of a prisoner. I believe that he would have been better off staying in his country, limited though rich, rather than be sent to a free land only to lose all freedom. I hope that he was eventually released and enjoyed a true freedom, one he had not tasted since before his life was turned upside down by his wife’s death.

My rating: 4 out of 5 = really liked it

The Tyrant's Novel

Available for purchase here.

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