His fascination with Betsy is clear in his decision to use her to tell his story, and in the insightful and nimble prose he attributes to her. His writing is consistently fresh and engaging ... As in Henry James’s novels about children, the combination of knowledge and ignorance creates a chiaroscuro effect that gives the narrative depth ... 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 ... seamlessly unites fiction and the 'truth.'
The outspoken Betsy is a terrific character, a force of nature and source of pride and appalled anxiety to her devoted family. But though Napoleon and his entourage increasingly become the centre of her world, the man himself eludes us. Betsy’s age and sex restrict her to the margins. Her perspective is too narrow to accommodate his ambiguities; her girlish preoccupations keep him off stage so that too often his character and actions come to us second-hand. While Betsy barrels off the page fully formed, the Great Ogre remains frustratingly opaque. For all the questions Keneally raises about Bonaparte’s complexities, he never quite creates a real man. There are nevertheless some glorious moments in this novel, lit with Keneally’s trademark impish humour.
...the fact that the book is unfailingly great reading is testimony to the fact that Keneally is our greatest living practitioner of historical fiction ... a masterpiece in miniature, a drama with almost no moving parts ... The halting, growing intimacy between these two characters is the centerpiece and genius of the novel ... a complex and mesmerizing success.
Keneally creates an intricate, intense world driven by power plays, culture clashes, secrets and deceptions. Napoleon, whom Keneally manages to make both appealing and repulsive, plays people like chess pieces, and the Balcombes' devotion to him is ultimately their ruination ... Betsy's passage from child to woman, which occurs during a shocker of a scene, is jaw-dropping and extremely affecting. But it's hard to wade through the labyrinth of endless, seemingly pointless mini-scenes and navigate the scores of characters to follow the story's main thread. One grows bored even as one admires Keneally's mastery of his subject and sentences. This is a book you get lost in, but not in the hoped-for way.