I have to admit I had some reservations going into Tom Keneally’s Two Old Men Dying, not least one which is kind of acknowledged by Keneally himself in his Authors Notes: “…given the many brilliant Aboriginal writers presently at work, it would be gross fraternal impoliteness for a white fellow to horn in on Aboriginal tales.” To be honest, this stuck with me through the entire read, and while Keneally says he hopes he is forgiven “for writing about 42,000-year-old Australian ancestors” because they “speak of all our human ancestries, black or white” I couldn’t help but feel that if I was going to read about an historical culture in a way that felt quite non-fictiony I would rather be learning about a real history of actual people and from an own voices writer (one that comes to mind since it is high on my to be read list at the moment would be Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu.)
From the publisher’s website:
Learned Man is the child of humankind as we know it; of those who are thought to have travelled from the Rift Valley in Africa and to ancient Australia. Shelby Apple is an acclaimed documentary-maker. After making films about Learned Man’s discovery, in Vietnam and back home in the Northern Territory, Shelby turns his sights on Eritrea. He thinks this embattled society might represent a new cognitive leap, one that will reconcile our tenderness and our savagery, our reason and our emotions.
Shelby sees the world through the lens of his camera; Learned Man through the lens of his responsibility under law. Both men are well aware that their landscape comes to them from elders and ancestors. They are each willing to die and, in a sense, kill for their secret crafts. Two Old Men Dying is an exquisite exploration of community and country, love and mortality.
I found this book quite hard to get into, and to get through. There wasn’t a strong narrative through the book, rather we read anecdotes through which we get to know each of the old men. I think this lack of a strong storyline is one of the things that made this feel a bit like reading non-fiction, although from about a third of the way into the book I felt like the anecdotes flowed better from one into the next. I haven’t read Tom Keneally before, but I’ve been led to understand that the use of complex/uncommon (fancy?) language is typical of his work, and I found this almost a bit self-indulgent. The book tells the stories of two protagonists living 42,000 years apart, but despite this difference I found the voices fairly similar – it was the context rather than the language that helped me keep track of who I was with at the time.
Language and style aside, there were some things I really liked about this book. I enjoyed they way that the two narratives started to come together towards the end. I felt like some of the connections between the two men’s stories were quite clever.
Overall, this clearly wasn’t a favourite of mine, and based on this experience I’m not sure whether I would pick up another Tom Keneally book (although I would love to hear if anyone thinks there is something of his I absolutely must read!). I gave it 2 out of 5 stars and would recommend it mostly for readers who are already fans of Keneally’s. If you are looking for another ‘old man telling stories about his life’ book, I’d highly recommend Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead – I wouldn’t say the two books are exactly similar, but they do share that story telling by an old man aspect, and I really enjoyed Gilead.