“The Book of Science and Antiquities” by Thomas Keneally; Atria (289 pages, $28)


Australian writer Thomas Keneally can be a hard sell. Brilliant, visionary and astoundingly prolific, he has written such bestsellers as “Schindler’s List” and “The Daughters of Mars,” as well as more than 40 other books, mostly novels, that showcase his mastery of modern science and world history and his richly layered, character-driven storytelling.

But reading Keneally requires the kind of respect and attention one often associates with classic novels of yesteryear. His stories are dense and complex. I have devoured some of them in a couple of sittings only to be told by friends that they couldn’t make it through the first chapter. Keneally’s latest novel, inexplicably burdened with the off-point title “The Book of Science and Antiquities,” will not be a big hit, but if you like Keneally, you’ll love it. It’s a set of paired narratives — the first focused on Shelby Apple, an aging Australian filmmaker who becomes fascinated by Learned Man, a 40,000-year-old set of bones found in the Australian Outback, and the second told by Learned Man himself.

Both protagonists have led long lives, rich in adventure, tragedy and respectable doses of the pride and foolishness built into the human condition. Both tell their stories in the shadow of looming death, which lends their narratives extra-poignant intensity. “All mothers want their issue to get along,” Shelby observes. “All mothers have a uterine yearning for peace. But their children are quickly sundered from each other by mere concepts such as nation, ideology, culture.”

Each of us is one of a kind, an unprecedented individual, and yet we are nothing, or very little, without community. That was true for ancient Learned Man and for modern Shelby. This is a rich and suspenseful read and a fine addition to Keneally’s unmatched exploration via fiction of what it means to be human.


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