‘Fanatic Heart’

Tom Keneally’s latest historical novel imagines the extraordinary life of John Mitchel, a celebrated Irish rebel during the Great Famine of the 1840s, who is convicted of treason by the English government and transported to Van Diemen’s Land.

His devoted wife Jenny, who also publicly championed the Irish cause, packs up the four kids and joins him upcountry, where he has restricted freedom to reside and move around. Other Irish rebels and convicts form a network of support for their hero and foment for Irish independence. Tom’s evocation of that place and period is terrific.

Without spoiling the story, as you’ll no doubt learn beforehand, Mitchel escapes to the US and becomes a beacon of Irish solidarity and agitation there. He starts up a newspaper in New York, and gets caught up in the raging anti-slavery debate, and critiques of barbaric industrial capitalism. Tom captures the febrile mood and ebullient tone of the times there too.

It’s amazing how people and ideas moved around the world in the latter half of the 19th century. They were well informed and connected despite the tyrannies of distance, sailing times and snail mail. The Mitchels’ escape from VDL and their voyaging to arrive finally in New York is a wonderful tale of adventure in itself.

Using Mitchel’s diaries and Keneally’s solid research on the political and social context in Ireland, VDL and America, the author really brings the reader inside the tumultuous events and themes of the era. I was totally on board for the ride and unhesitatingly recommend it.

On a personal footnote, you might be interested to know that I jumped over the Keneally backlog waiting in my library to firstly read his latest. Tom’s writing ‘em quicker than I can read ‘em, and at the tender age of eighty-seven shows no signs of retiring (well over 50 books)! He has been described as the Balzac of our literature, but then Honoré died at fifty-one.

Keneally backlog

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