As the narrator of Thomas Keneally’s latest novel, Napoleons Last Island, Betsy calls her family guest other things too, and the permutation of Napoleonic names charts the changing attitude of the Balcombe toward him. The British cabinet has instructed Islanders to address him as General, but Barry Omeara, Napoleon’s physician and a friend of the Balcombe, insists upon Emperor. What Betsy doesn’t see plays as great a role in the novel as what she sees.
- “Napoleon’s Last Island” is old-fashioned in the best sense, with all the new-fashioned pleasures that come with toppling heroes from their pedestals, whether they be the scourge of Europe or members of one’s own family.
- A novel is a novel, and even as alternate history, “Napoleon’s Last Island” seamlessly unites fiction and the “truth,” which means in this case that its armature of fact supports its layers of fictional invention as though they were weightless
- Readers will finish this book wanting to know how much of what Keneally describes actually occurred. In all likelihood, the author enjoyed provoking such wishes.
“In the so-called real world, Betsy and her family were flesh-and-blood historical figures whose existence Keneally learned of while visiting a museum in Melbourne.”