Daily Archives: December 30, 2010

‘Three Famines’ by Tom Keneally

2010, 320 p.

The three famines of this book are the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, the Bengal famine during WWII and the Ethiopian famine of the 1970s and 80s.  Keneally has written about two of these famines previously- the Irish famine in The Great Shame, and through his fictional work Towards Asmara– and so, in one regard, this is a well-tilled field for him.  This book, however, is a comparative text and  he draws out commonalities between the three famines- the role of the evil figurehead who comes to personify the famine; the whistleblowers who make the famine known to the wider world and the ideologies and administrative incompetence that lie behind the political acts that so often exacerbate the famine.  Indeed, instead of famine being the failure of crops or rain, it is the result of egotism, politicking, ideology and willful blindness, often during a time of war.  Plenty and famine perversely seem to be able to exist simultaneously.  He writes of the physical effects of famine and poverty, and the paradox by  which nutritional alternatives are spurned in the yearning for familiar food. He highlights the restlessness that drives the migration patterns of starving people – a timely reminder in the face of such anxiety over ‘illegal’ refugees and people movement.

I have a few quibbles over the book, however.  It is clearly written as a layman’s guide, rather than an academic text, and  even this is marred by several editorial mistakes including dates. At times chapters cover all three famines, while other chapters are devoted specifically to one famine alone.   I wish that he had written a final chapter, drawing the three famines together, but instead the book splintered off into a string of other smaller famines that blunted the impact of the book somewhat.  Keneally is a prolific writer on a wide range of topics and a much-loved public personality, but I just wish that this was a tighter book than it is.