Shades of grey

The Widow and Her Heroby Thomas KeneallySceptre £16.99, 264 pagesFT bookshop price: £13.59

The world as painted by Thomas Keneally is grey. Not monochrome: his characters speak in different voices, of different passions, and his settings run from lush, itchy tropical brush to achingly empty suburbia. Nor is it that the septuagenarian author washes his stories in a sepia tint - though that is always a risk with fiction about the past. In the author's latest novel, The Widow and Her Hero, a young bride's train journey to see her soldier husband in 1940s wartime Australia keeps from falling into clickety-clackety cliche. Instead, it yanks the reader lurchingly, authentically along, from harassed night in a sleeper car, to miserable early-hours transfer, to a final leg of the voyage awkwardly napping among strangers.

No, Keneally's world is grey in that he refuses to let it be black and white. He inserts doubt and nuance into stories we might have thought simple, times we thought we knew. That effort, when applied to the Holocaust in his 1982 novel Schindler's Ark, won Keneally the Booker prize, followed by worldwide fame when Steven Spielberg turned it into the 1993 film Schindler's List. And if the tale of Oskar Schindler asked us to see the second world war from as different a perspective as All Quiet on the Western Front demanded we see the first, so then asks for a place - almost explicitly - in succession to first world war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Like them, it juxtaposes bravery and selfishness. And like them, too, it peers into the hearts of men who believe it sweet and right to die for their country.

Just out of school, Grace, the narrator of the novel, falls for and marries Captain Leo Waterhouse, a handsome Australian soldier recruited into a military special-operations team dedicated to risky raids on Japanese shipping targets. The first of these is an unqualified success; the second ends in tragedy. The men are captured by the enemy, tried as war criminals and clumsily beheaded.

Sixty years later, Grace commits Leo's story to paper, although she is not alone in this effort; the men became war heroes for their efforts, attracting the attention of journalists and biographers. Moreover, Leo's letters and a diary from his final days aid her account. This turns the book from mere meditation into an adventure tale, complete with gruelling training exercises, daring escapes and thrilling victories. “They mined the dark side of the bows of a 6000-ton freighter,” writes Grace, describing that first, midnight mission, in which the men attached explosives to the Japanese ships' hulls. “Then exhausted by stress and effort, Leo wrapped an arm around the ship's anchor chain for a while and he and Jockey [a fellow commando] rested, within earshot of the sentries' banter and the sizzle of oxy torches.”

Keneally has based Leo's team and its raids on two real-life operations conducted by Allied forces in the South Pacific. But he doesn't forget the human details that make fictional accounts of historical events so sparkle. Grace goes on: “They ate chocolate in the dark, surveying the wharf area, of which Leo made sketches and notes as they tarried, invisible in the shadow of the enemy's bows.”

It is in the details, too, that this book reaches out beyond its surface subject. Reading about men enthralled by “grotesque” codes of honour, about show trials and torture, one can't help but notice how Keneally's complication of one war also undermines efforts to cast the current “war on terror” in black and white terms.

But subtlety doesn't obliterate grief, and Grace is still angry with Leo for choosing heroics over a long life together. “I'd always had this argument to wage with Leo, except he could not be reached for questioning,” she states matter of factly. These occasional (too occasional, it sometimes feels), stark notes of loneliness and misery are important: flashes of colour - Spielberg knew it too when he inserted that little girl in a red coat into Schindler's List - are what breathe life into history, making it art.

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