Napoleon’s Last Island

Written by Thomas Keneally
Review by Sarah Bower

The story of Napoleon’s last years on Saint Helena is more legend than history to anyone who has studied history from an English viewpoint. Thomas Keneally’s perspective, therefore, which begins with a little-known Australian connection between the ‘Great Ogre’ and the family who were his original hosts on the island, throws a welcome fresh light on his exile.

Before his own house was ready, Napoleon stayed with the Balcombe family whose head, William, was an officer of the East India Company. William had five children, the second of whom, Betsy, at the age of thirteen, forged a tense and competitive friendship with Napoleon. He enjoyed children’s games. She fancied herself on the cusp of womanhood. In this novel, she tells the story of their passing intimacy, both childish and erotically charged. Their closeness would eventually disgrace the family, who would immigrate to Australia to avoid censure in London.

Though the novel begins with Napoleon’s death, it is mainly chronologically constructed and observes the conventions of memoir, with the adult Betsy looking back on this momentous period at the end of her childhood. She is bitterly self-critical, and justifiably so, for Betsy is a vindictive girl with a sharp tongue, no tact and an inability to show her feelings for those she loves, notably her sister, Jane. While I don’t subscribe to the view that fictional narrators have to be likeable, the character of Betsy makes the novel difficult to enjoy because there is nothing endearing about her, nothing which explains or justifies her petty unpleasantness. So, while Keneally constructs her voice with all the skill of a writer at the top of his game, for me, the book founders on it.

Technically superb, historically interesting, but not, ultimately, a great read.