Sunday, June 20, 2010

Thomas Keneally "A Dutiful Daughter"

"A Dutiful Daughter" by Australian author Thomas Keneally (better known for the award winning Schindler's Ark) is an interesting novel.  The story begins with Barbara, a young woman in her twenties who cares for her parents, and runs the small family dairy.  Barbara is awaiting the arrival of her brother Damian who is due back at the farm on a break from university.  What unfolds is a very disturbing tale, largely told by Damian, of the Glover family drama that has led to Barbara both at once dominating, and being dominated by, the family dynamics.

My feelings are mixed for "A Dutiful Daughter."  The language is amazing and often perplexing.  Much of the narrative is told in the second person, addressed to Damian.  I can not readily recall a book I have read recently that uses this type of story telling:

The moment you saw her she surprisingly extended her hand, commanding yours.   You instantly grabbed the hand with both of yours, as if you needed rescue.   p.24

The use of "you" is even more intimate than first person narrative.  As soon as Damian enters the drama and the narrative switches to the "you" of second person, I felt inextricably drawn into this whirl pool of family hardship and guilt.

Other intriguing story telling tools include the use of a reflective journal written by Barbara.  The journal is largely about her feelings and comments on the life of Joan of Arc. Here she clearly identifies with the trials of Joan of Arc to express feelings of her own sense of duty.

A Dutiful Daughter is told in an allegorical style.  Often books using strong symbolism tend to leave me a bit cold.  However Keneally makes this work.  The symbols used are extreme and quite horrifying, but I felt they were appropriate for the message Keneally is trying to convey.  And I guess, as allegorical stories are more open to interpretation than other fiction, the following comments on the themes are only that; my interpretation.

I felt at the heart of A Dutiful Daughter is a sense of enmeshment and suffocation between the family members, and the guilt that often follows this sort of enmeshment and misplaced sense of duty:

Suddenly you found yourself angry that she so consistently saw herself as the centre of gravity in the Glover vortex of suffering.  p.30

A Dutiful Daughter was first published in 1971 and set during the preceding decade or so.  I mention this because I do get the sense that Keneally is making a statement about the effect of feelings of "duty" not just to aging parents but also the effect of constraints and expectations of a parents' generation on their offspring.  I suspect that while some of these issues are still relevant today, they were particularly relevant during the 1960s.

I just felt so incredibly sorry for the brother and sister at the heart of this story.  Damian and Barbara are both struggling in different ways, to form an identity of themselves that is not a tragic product or reflection of their truly awful family ties.  Keneally also beautifully captures that things can go terribly wrong even when the family players have no ill intent towards each other.  I think it is this that makes this story so incredibly sad.

The landscape also features in this novel and forms part of the tempo of the narrative.  Keneally gives a good sense of place and small town life.  The heavy rains and rising flood waters add to the mood and momentum of the story.

In summary this is a particularly dark novel.  I did find myself compelled to read on though, and at only 147 pages it is a quick read.   I genuinely admire what Keneally has achieved with this book.  Using a very shocking narrative he explores themes of family, duty and identity that aren't really tackled in modern fiction.  I would recommend it to anyone who wants to enjoy an expertly written, unusual story.


  1. This sounds like an unusual book! I can't think of many books that are written in the second person. I'd love to read more Australian literature, so thanks for bringing this one to my attention.

  2. What a great review. I am ashamed to say that I have never read of Keneally's work, but I will have to make sure that I keep my eye out for this book (and any of his others) when I am out second hand book shopping.

  3. Enthralling review Mel. I can't believe I still haven't read anything by Keneally, but I'll have to check this one out when I can handle another sad story, if only for the interesting writing elements!

  4. Helen - For a couple more ideas re Australian fiction -Tim Winton is one of my favourite Aussie authors - he has written alot, The Riders is my favourite of his. And you can't go past The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It has been reviewed extensively and really does live up to all of the praise it has received. I loved it.

    Thanks Becky - I found this copy in a second hand bookshop along with a copy of Bliss by Peter Carey.

    Thanks Joanne - I agree with you entirely about needing to space out the sad stories, even if they are written beautifully.

  5. I also found the idea of second person narration as a very interesting device as you suggested-a very interesting post-thanks for sharing with us-I am now getting into Australian writers from the period around 1870 to 1920 such as Lawson, Baynton, Patterson and my latest read Marcus Clarke. I am also a big fan of Marcus Zusak-I like his I am the Messenger a lot also but not as much as The Book Thief-

  6. Second person narrative sounds intriguing but at the same time it makes me feel doubtful if I'd like it. But your review makes me want to give it a try anyway.

    The only other 2nd person narrative I have read was Complicity by Iain Banks - that was only for small parts of the novel though not in large amounts. Although it was disturbing enough.

  7. Fiona - it did take me a while to adjust to the second person style. The whole "you" thing is a bit confronting to be honest. Fortunately, it is broken up in this novel with some third person passages too. I will have to look up Complicity. I hadn't heard of this one. Many thanks for stopping by.


Comments are very welcome.