The Book of Science and Antiquities

Atria. Dec. 2019. 304p. ISBN 9781982121037. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781982121051. F
Prolific is an adjective that merely scratches the surface of this author (Crimes of the Father; Schindler’s List), here presenting his 33rd novel. Set in Australia, it braids the story of a 40,000-year-old-human skeleton called Learned Man and a documentary filmmaker named Shelby Apple. (Note that the Australian edition of this book is titled Two Old Men Dying.) Apple, recently diagnosed with cancer, becomes obsessed with repatriating Learned Man’s bones to their original location. His efforts are intertwined with narratives from the life of Learned Man, a tribal elder named Shade facing his own death. By looping these seemingly disparate narratives across time, Keneally meditates on the unchanged rhythm of human emotion from the Pleistocene to the Holocene epochs. Unfortunately, with the focus squarely on philosophical musings, this novel suffers from a wandering plot and a lack of character development. Keneally’s language ranges from richly descriptive to captivating, but the structure of the book ultimately works against its readability.
VERDICT Fans of Keneally’s work will find some gems here, but they will have to dig for them. [See Prepub Alert, 5/20/19.]

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