Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

Daniel Rooke,soldier and astronomer, was always an outsider. As a young lieutenant of marines he arrives in New South Wales on the First Fleet in 1788 and sees his chance. he sets up his observatory away from the main camp, and begins the scientific work that he hopes will make him famous.

Aboriginal people soon start to visit his isolated promontory, and a child named Tagaran begins to teach him her language. With meticulous care he records their conversations.

An extraordinary friendship forms, and Rooke has almost forgotten he is a soldier when a man is fatally wounded in the infant colony. The lieutenant faces a decision that will define not only who he is but the course of his entire life.

In this profoundly moving novel Kate Grenville returns to the landscape of her much-loved bestseller The Secret River. Inspired by the notebooks of William Dawes, The Lieutenant is a compelling story about friendship and self-discovery by a writer at the peak of her power.
There's no doubt that if I try to work out where my gaps are in terms of the Historical Fiction that I read, then Australian history is one of those gaps. It's not because it doesn't interest me, because it does, but I think because it is either difficult to find out about good books that use Australian history as the base, or because there aren't that many good books out there.

Not long before I started blogging back in 2005, I read The Secret River by Kate Grenville. Set at the time of the First Fleet it looked at the relationship between white settlers and the native Australian Aborigines who were already here. Grenville returns to this same setting in The Lieutenant.

The main character in the story is Lieutenant Daniel Rooke. He is a young man who has been chosen to receive a top notch education based on his impressive mathematical abilities, and finds himself recruited to serve in the First Fleet that it coming to Australia. Whilst he is a soldier, his main role once he gets to the new land will be as astronomer, observing the night skies and in particular looking for signs of a comet. With his skills as astronomer, linguist and orienter are very valued on such an expedition, he is also very much aware that he is something of an outcast.

When the fleet arrives in Botany Bay, Rooke sets up his observatory at a distance away from the rest of the soldiers and convicts. This places him in an ideal position to be able to interact with the local tribespeople, and he quickly begins to study the language and make friends with the people, most especially a young girl. It doesn't take long however for relations between the settlers and the natives to degenerate and Rooke finds himself having to choose between duty and friendship.

Whilst the setting is similar, there are significant differences between the two stories. In this novel, Grenville has pared the narrative right back to the basics of the story. We are very much focussed on Rooke's life, and his interactions. For me, this made The Lieutenant a much stronger, more interesting book.

I was interested in a couple of the choices that Grenville made with this book. There is no secret that this book is very much based on the life of one Lt William Dawes who was a skilled astronomer and who did document the language. On her website, Grenville explains the choices that she made. The interesting thing to me was that she chose to use different names for all the characters - not only for Rooke/Dawes but also for first Governor and for the known names of some of the other important figures from the First Fleet. I am not sure that it was necessary to make these changes, but I do understand her intent. As she says on her website:

I've taken events that took place in the real world and used them as the basis for a work of imagination.

This is a novel, then, not history.

It is a deceptively short book. The hardcover version I had had a total of 307 pages, but the text size and white spaces were definitely on the generous side.

I enjoyed this trip into Australian history, and hope to read more with this setting. This book will be published in the US and UK on February 5 2009.


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