‘Don’t human beings amaze you?’ The question, which is posed close to the end of Shame and the Captives, could encapsulate Thomas Keneally’s entire body of work. From his autobiographical debut, The Place at Whitton, published fifty years ago, to 2012’s The Daughters of Mars, his writing has been fuelled by a fascination with fact as the basis for fiction and, reciprocally, by a conviction that fiction’s capaciousness is the best way to narrate facts that might otherwise beggar belief.
In this, Shame and the Captives, Keneally’s thirtieth novel, is characteristic, drawing its inspiration from an actual prison break. In 1944 over a thousand Japanese soldiers and airmen tried to escape a POW camp in Cowra, New South Wales (reimagined by Keneally as Gawell). In the ensuing panicked confrontation – some might say blood bath – more than two hundred Japanese lost their lives, along with four Australian soldiers.