cover image The Book of Science and Antiquities

The Book of Science and Antiquities

Thomas Keneally. Atria, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-982-12103-7

The inventive but disappointing 33rd novel from Keneally (Schindler’s Ark) centers on the improbable but resonant parallels between an Australian documentary filmmaker and Learned Man, a 42,000-year-old predecessor of the Australian aborigines. After a prolific career, Shelby Apple is in his late 70s when he’s diagnosed with esophageal cancer, causing him to reflect on his life. His first documentary was on aboriginal eye disease and, after winning an Academy Award for a film on the Vietnam War, he began working with Peter Jorgenson, a geomorphologist who first discovered the skeleton of Learned Man. As Apple ponders his legacy, he decides to renew an old petition to the Australian government to have Learned Man returned to his original resting place from museum storage. Apple’s remembrances transport him to prehistoric Australia, and the narrative becomes interspersed with Learned Man’s own exchanges as a clan elder. Learned Man mourns the loss of his son, cherishes his wife, and struggles to understand and perform his duties as a judge and punisher. While the intriguing premise allows Keneally to delve into themes of leaving a legacy and man’s place within nature, unfortunately, both characters remain underdeveloped and Learned Man’s narrative is delivered in dry prose. This won’t go down as one of Keneally’s better works. (Dec.)