KATE GAFFNEY-KOZINSKI has the kind of perfect-on-the-outside privileged life that you just know is doomed. Married to the ruthless scion of a Polish-Australian construction magnate, she lives in a beautiful seaside home and has two sun-kissed children. But she's started drinking to drown the pain of her husband's infidelity.
Kate flees: She takes a train and gets off at a town that looks right. She has a vague purpose: to become unfeeling in a place where she's unknown. In "Woman of the Inner Sea," Thomas Keneally traces Kate's redemptive journey back to wholeness.
An Australian writer of 24 books, Keneally won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize in 1983 for his novel "Schindler's List," now being filmed by Steven Spielberg in Poland.
Keneally spins out Kate's story through the voice of a supremely confident ringmaster: "Bring the Sydney spring to us, with its bright effervescent air." He tells the reader that a certain character is going to be history tomorrow but reveals the tragedy that lies at the heart of the book only in small, oblique glimpses: references to Kate's scarred shoulders, flashbacks of her husband bellowing, "Why weren't you with them?"
The tragedy she has fled is so great that Kate can't talk or even think about it. She's dammed up, detached; and she treats the people that enter her life as stagehands in her own private drama of resolution. She finally decides to accept the reserved attentions of a pub regular, Jelly, named more for his stash of gelignite than his great girth.
Keneally's tale has several high points of drama. When a major flood hits, Kate joins in a frenzy of sandbag-making. Jelly decides to save the town by a strategic use of dynamite. But a freak chain of events results in a disaster that sends Kate on the run again. She's been found by her husband's private detective, Burnside, who's pressuring her to sign documents that will release her from her husband's business dealings.
"Woman of the Inner Sea" is about discovering decent people in the midst of disaster and the tiny kindnesses that can salve a blistered soul.
Keneally explores several worlds of modern Australia and age-old religious-ethnic feuds between various groups of Eastern European immigrants. The tale is shot through with black comedy that seeps up in names: There's a subplot involving the rescue of an emu named Menzies and a kangaroo named Chifley (both former Australian prime ministers). Bizarre events have an ironic rightness about them: Angels in the form of policemen arrive in the nick of time, and Chifley thumps Burnside when the man tries to box
The novel, while not a conventional mystery, is muscular with suspense. Kate ends up finding out what happened in the charred ruins of her life and achieves an unusually satisfying retribution; one that's quiet, legal, and bloodless.
Keneally writes with Irish eloquence and lovely turns of phrase. Sometimes the sheer number of them become as thick as clotted cream, but that's a small quibble.