Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally

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Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The story of what happened to Napoleon between the beginning of his exile there and his death. Keneally is a superb story teller and he works his magic again. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448/15h 6m Date: May 2016
Publisher: Scpetre
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1473625334

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It's not usual to open a review with the history of how the book came to be written but with Napoleon's Last Island the story sheds an intriguing light on the plot. In 2012 author Thomas Keneally was given tickets to an exhibition of Napoleonic artefacts: uniforms, furniture, china, paintings, military decorations, snuff boxes and memorabilia as well as Napoleon's death mask. He was intrigued as to how the exhibits and particularly the mask came to be in Australia. Some pieces in the exhibition had been bought in later but most came from the descendants of the Balcombe family, who came to the colony in the first half of the nineteenth century, from St Helena via England. The result of Keneally's research into the story is Napoleon's Last Island.

Napoleon had escaped from Elba and after his recapture he was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic ocean and one of the most remote islands in the world. His final home on the island, Longwood House, wasn't ready when he arrived and for three months he was the guest of the Balcombe family in part of their homestead, The Briars. Relationships with all the family were cordial but a particular friendship grew up between the Emperor and Betsy Balcombe, the rebellious younger daughter of the family. They teased each other, relentlessly, with Betsy asking what might be thought of as impertinent questions: was the Emperor sorry that he'd invaded Russia?

Betsy's father, william Balcombe was the superintendent of sales on the island for the British East India Company and an emotional allegiance between Balcombe and the Emperor quickly developed. The same could not be said when a new governor, Sir Hudson Lowe (he'd be known by the Balcombe family and their friends as 'Name and Nature' as in Lowe by name and nature) who set out to constrict Napoleon's life. It was obvious where William Balcombe's priorities rested and his actions would cost him and his family dear.

It would be easy to forget that you're reading a work of fiction: the story is based on Betsy Balcombe's journal, but for most of the story she was in her early teens and would not have been party to much of what happened. Other sources include the two volume version of what happened on the island from Napoleon's surgeon, the Irishman Barry O'Meara and it's difficult to be sure that he didn't have his own axe to grind, but the story is compelling and gripping.

You might expect that Napoleon would take centre stage in such a story but it's Betsy who dominates the story and comes off the page exceptionally well. She stays with you when you've finished the book and Keneally shows how she matures particularly well. But this is more than just an elegant piece of historical fiction. William Balcombe appears to be an honest man, but the pressures which the Emperor's household placed on the island's resources mean that prices inflated and Balcombe directly benefited from this, as did many of the islanders. Napoleon ceases to be a tyrant brought to heel and becomes a charismatic victim. Few can match Tom Keneally as a storyteller and he works his magic again in Napoleon's Last Island.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a hard copy to the Bookbag. In addition to reading the book I also listened to an audio download, which I bought myself. David Tredinnick gives voice to Keneally's prologue and epilogue but most of the book is narrated by Edwina Wren who has a superb range of voices (including French, Irish, Australian and British accents) which bring the characters perfectly to life. I was never in any doubt as to who was speaking and it's an audiobook I'll return to in the future.

For more from Keneally we can recommend The Daughters of Mars.

Buy Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally at Amazon You could get a free audio download of Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally with a 30-day Audible free trial at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally at Amazon.com.


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