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Review: Thomas Keneally’s “Napoleon’s Last Island”

The talented and immensely prolific Australian novelist, Thomas Keneally, has published his thirty-fourth novel. Two of my favorites have always been The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972) and Schindler’s List (1982), novels so opposite in subject matter and setting that they tell us much about what guides Keneally as a writer. He doesn’t keep re-telling the same story again and again, even though some readers want that. Instead, he repeatedly strikes out for new territory. Jimmie Blacksmith was about the prejudice inflicted on Australia’s aboriginal people. We’re all familiar, I suspect, with Schindler’s List, in part because of the riveting film version, directed by Steven Spielberg (1993). So along comes Keneally’s most recent novel about Napoleon’s final years, guiding us into still another area, era, and focus. What an amazing career Keneally has had, beginning with his first novel, The Place at Whitton, published in 1964. And these facts do not even include a list of his many non-fiction works.

Napoleon is not the main character of Keneally’s new novel Napoleon’s Last Island, though his final years on St. Helena are central to the story. Earlier, he had been confined to Elba, but he escaped and returned to France, so his second incarceration—by the European allies who had fought France during the Napoleonic wars—placed him on the distant island in the south Atlantic. He still had to be watched carefully with security guards and ships patrolling the waters in case he and/or others assisted him in flight. Keneally’s story is related mostly by Betsy Balcombe, whose family moved to St. Helena when she was three years old. Her father was one of the managers of the East India Company. Because of its strategic location, the island was an important watering station for passing ships.

Betsy—along with her older sister, Jane—were briefly sent to England for their formal education, before Napoleon arrived on the island. But Betsy was always a bit of a wild child. She hated England but loved St. Helena, a better setting for her antics, to be certain. Thus, Betsy’s British education lasted only about a year, and by the time of Napoleon’s naplastislarrival in 1815, she was thirteen. The island had been a sleepy little place until Napoleon’s arrival, with the influx of all the soldiers watching him, doubling the island’s population overnight. Since the great military strategist’s facilities were not ready for him, he stayed temporarily with Betsy’s family (her parents, Jane, and younger brothers). It was during this brief period—when the construction at Longwood was being completed—that Betsy (and her family to a lesser extent) began to develop a friendship with the exiled leader. It helped that both sisters had studied French during their schooling in England, so they became translators for whatever dialogue was necessary between the Frenchman and his English-speaking overseers.

Napoleon was met with expected skepticism and ill regard when he arrived at St. Helena. Betsy constantly refers to as an Ogre, a Monster, a Universal Demon, and the Phenomenon, but eventually the Balcombe family uses the letters OGF referencing him, meaning Our Great Friend. That’s significant because Keneally humanizes Napoleon by the use of his young narrator, who is not an invented character but an actual figure who lived on the island. (Her journals exist and were used by the writer as a major source for his novel.) It’s not too long before we see Napoleon playing with the two young girls—yes, playing with them. Betsy herself is described as “the childhood playmate Napoleon had never had.” Her ability to speak French facilitates this. We catch glimpses of Napoleon’s shyness, his surprisingly good cheer, revealing a practical joker. And then, rather abruptly, the natural friendship is ended by the completion of Longwood, after which time it’s much more difficult for Betsy (and her family) to see the captive in their midst.

Napoleon moves to the side for a significant part of the story as other events on the island are delineated. We are told that he had numerous visitors, mostly passengers from the ships stopping temporarily at the island. There are constant rivalries among the British functionaries who run the island and make certain that Napoleon is not able to escape. These jealousies eventually lead to Betsy’s father being removed from his position for the East India Company and the family’s return to England. Just before that a surprising incident takes place—not the anticipated seduction of Betsy and/or her older sister as we might have assumed. After they depart, Napoleon dies, in 1821 at age 51, but the story has already moved on to the Balcombe family and the fates of each of them.

I had hoped to enjoy Napoleon’s Last Island more than I did. It’s an impressive account of Betsy Balcombe’s encounter with a bigger-than-life character, who would be a challenge for any writer to understand and present with any neutrally. I found the action often pedantically slow in spite of the insights into Napoleon’s character, rounding him out in a Dickensian way. Betsy is obviously much more lively but a minor historical figure. My reservations, I am certain, will not dissuade devotees of historical fiction from reading the novel.

Thomas Keneally: Napoleon’s Last Island
Atria, 423 pp., $30

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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