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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Tyrant's Novel

Thomas Keneally

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To purchase The Tyrant's Novel

Title: The Tyrant's Novel
Author: Thomas Keneally
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 235 pages
Availability: The Tyrant's Novel - US
The Tyrant's Novel - UK
The Tyrant's Novel - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good ideas and presentation, but some odd plot choices

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 5/7/2003 Nicola Walker
Entertainment Weekly A- 4/6/2004 John Freeman
The Guardian . 31/1/2004 Alfred Hickling
The Independent B 5/3/2004 Ian Thomson
New Statesman . 1/3/2004 Hugo Barnacle
The NY Times . 17/6/2004 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. A 18/7/2004 Terrence Rafferty
The Spectator . 21/2/2004 Caroline Moorehead
Sydney Morning Herald . 19/7/2003 Andrew Riemer
The Telegraph C 16/2/2004 Tom Payne
Time . 14/6/2004 Richard Lacayo
TLS . 13/2/2004 Robert Irwin
The Washington Post C+ 4/7/2004 David Rieff

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus

  From the Reviews:
  • "Keneally, hitless since 1982's Booker Prize winner Schindler's List, may just break that streak with a story as timely as it is disturbing." - John Freeman, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Whether intentionally or not, The Tyrant's Novel has the feel of a book written in a hurry. This enhances the urgency with which Alan wishes to put his story across, but it skims over the fine details that would give the account real credibility." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "Keneally's narrative, fortified by flashes of acerbic humour, exudes sympathy for the Arabic oppressed as well as a rage at the West's apparent maltreatment of asylum-seekers. His prose occasionally shows signs of hasty composition (...). Ultimately, The Tyrant's Novel reads like a preliminary sketch, not the "Orwellian fable" the author claims. Nevertheless, the book lingers in the mind as a forceful essay on the corrupting tendency of power." - Ian Thomson, The Independent

  • "He gives all the Iraqi characters the kind of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic names that white Australians have.(...) The whole conceit keeps drawing attention to itself like an ill-fitting toupee and reminding you of the very thing it's supposed to conceal: in this case, not baldness but otherness." - Hugo Barnacle, New Statesman

  • "The Tyrant's Novel is more amorous and unpredictable than its grim setting would suggest. Mr. Keneally sees horror in this nation and its iron rule, but he sees all manner of absurdity, too. His book is mutable enough to include both a running joke about the dictator's fondness for Tommy Hilfiger cologne and a full grasp of the hardships inflicted on his people. Its most impressive aspect is Mr. Keneally's quicksilver way of switching moods, shifting from light to dark and back again, as he captures the utter precariousness of life subject to a tyrant's whims." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Keneally's perverse inspiration in this book is to examine the everyday consequences of personal grief and political terror through the consciousness of a figure whose anguish is traditionally, and inherently, ridiculous: the blocked writer, deadline-panicked, despondent and sick to death of himself. (...) The power of a novelist can be intoxicating too, and this sneakily profound book shows how even a writer as fundamentally unheroic as Alan Sheriff can avoid that sad habituality, the potentially lethal illusion of mastery." - Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times Book Review

  • "What gives The Tyrantís Novel its tense, edgy tone is the implicit understanding of the exile that is to come, the sense of being sucked without alternative towards flight.(...) Writing about what he calls the 'aged weariness' of people readying themselves for the giant task of displacement, Keneally rides the thin line between fiction and non-fiction with great and pleasing ease, never forgetting that refugees very seldom want to be refugees, nor that their stories are often the sole passports that they carry with them into exile." - Caroline Moorehead, The Spectator

  • "Yes, it has its sinister moments, and the atrocities it depicts are either real or else completely plausible; and its frame device, in which we meet the author in a refugee camp, shows proper concern for the world's rootless victims of unrest. (...) But the plot doesn't take a dramatic shape -- the ending adds nothing to the tale -- and worse still, the prose is crook." - Tom Payne, The Telegraph

  • "The Tyrant's Novel was written, sagely, sinuously, under the spell of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa and their mad generalissimos. There is everywhere a whiff of Graham Greene, with his moral skirmishing in the gray areas." - Richard Lacayo, Time

  • "The novel's story-telling energy derives in large measure from the book's angry polemical intent. (...) One dreads to know what will happen next and yet one carries on reading -- even though Keneally is almost as didactic as the author, or authors, of Zabibah and the King. The Tyrant's Novel does indeed denounce the evils of sanctions." - Robert Irwin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The problem with The Tyrant's Novel, however, and it is a weakness that has pervaded his work, is that the themes that absorb him somehow always appear bigger than the characters he devises to exemplify them. (...) But if Keneally's approach is finally too sociological and, frankly, too politically correct (the portrait of asylum seekers in their detention center is cloying in its romanticization of them), the book has brilliant set pieces as well as one inspired conceit." - David Rieff, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Tyrant's Novel was inspired by the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. Among the smallest of his many crimes against humanity were some works of fiction that he (and/or his ghostwriters) perpetrated, and The Tyrant's Novel is, among other things, a fictional account of one such ghostwriting effort.
       Saddam Hussein and Iraq are only thinly disguised in this novel. People- and place-names are different (the tyrant himself popularly just referred to as Great Uncle), but there is no mistaking that this is the Iraq of recent memory and that the madman in charge is Saddam. Among Keneally's interesting fictional devices is that the names are Western(-ized) -- Douglas, McBrien, Chaddock, Carter, etc. -- leading to an odd disconnect (and raising the question of how different things might be: "If we all had good Anglo-Saxon names ...").
       The novel is framed by a preface and a brief "After-Tale", the narrator of these visiting a man calling himself Alan Sheriff in a detention camp cum no-man's land where he is being held (having come -- but only semi-successfully -- to the West). Sheriff tells his tale, and this is what makes up the bulk of the novel.
       Sheriff lead a relatively privileged life in his homeland, family money and his wife's successful TV acting job allowing him to live fairly comfortably even in this economy ravaged by sanctions. He is a writer, and had successfully published a book of stories in America (at that time still an ally of his homeland). It was even "sympathetically reviewed on page five of the New York Times Book Review", leading to a remunerative contract for a second book which he was close to finishing at the time his story begins, the dollar-denominated advance (the next instalments of which he is scheduled to get upon completion and delivery) also making his comfortable and still semi-independent (from the state authorities) lifestyle possible
       The sudden death of his wife, Sarah, hits Sheriff hard -- and also leads him to abandon his novel. Instead he takes on a much simpler writing job: subtitling foreign movies. But someone else has his sights on him as well: Great Uncle wants someone to ghostwrite a novel that he can publish as his own, in an effort to show the West the human toll economic sanctions have had on the country. Sheriff's social realist style is just the thing, Great Uncle imagines.
       It's not an offer Sheriff can decline. The tight deadline -- one month -- makes it even more of a challenge, but the main hindrance is Sheriff's own state of mind. Between his wife's death and this unpleasant coercion (though it offers potentially very pleasant benefits), he can't get very enthusiastic about the project (and it doesn't exactly inspire him).
       The most fascinating parts of The Tyrant's Novel show the perverse workings of the tyrant's mind. His whims have little affect on Sheriff's daily life until he is assigned this task. Then, suddenly, Sheriff is enmeshed in the Great Uncle's bizarre world. He gets to meet the great man -- an adventure in itself -- but more pernicious is the long shadow of the tyrant thereafter hanging over him. Sheriff finds himself with a minder, and realises that his actions will also affect others, making for a terrible mutual dependency, pressure Sheriff finds very hard to handle. He was apparently not the first choice for this undertaking, and the unpleasant consequences of refusal or escape are made very, very clear to him.
       Keneally describes this fictional Iraq well, especially the lives of those who choose to (or have to) remain, as well as the corrosive effects the tyrant's rule have had on all levels of society. One of the sub-plots involves Sheriff's service in the military during what is clearly the war with Iran and the lies about that conflict, continuing to affect lives even years later.
       With its tight deadline, Sheriff's unbalanced state, and the constant threat of very severe punishment if the Great Uncle is not pleased, there's certainly a good narrative tension to The Tyrant's Novel. Unfortunately, Keneally makes some very odd plot choices -- in particular involving the manuscript that Sheriff abandoned (in a very dramatic way) when his wife died. Keneally surely could have managed without such improbable scenarios (given how the book is chock-full of the very unusual -- if generally more plausible -- in any case).
       The ending is a bit simple, too: the detention camp is a nice touch, but the book as a whole feels under-resolved
       The Tyrant's Novel is a good read, with some powerful scenes. The book does also offer interesting insight into geo-politics and daily life -- from the effect of economic sanctions to illegal oil- (and people-) smuggling, from what American PR firms will do (anything for any scum) to some creative forms of terror and fear-instilling --, making for some interesting perspectives on countries like Saddam's Iraq. But the novel as a whole feels just a bit too much made-up: a message dressed up as fiction. Certainly of interest, but ultimately slightly disappointing.

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The Tyrant's Novel: Reviews: Thomas Keneally: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Prolific Australian author Thomas Keneally has writen a wide variety of books and won the Booker Prize.

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