Monday, February 8, 2010

Book of the month - The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

Daniel Rooke, astronomer, mathematician and marine,  a boy who showed promise growing up in Portsmouth in the 1760s, grew into a man who believed that 'God was just a way for a man to interrogate his own heart'.

Sickened by the violent death of fellow soldiers witnessed in the West Indies, he seeks an escape to gentler climes.  And what better than accompanying the First Fleet to settle the great land discovered by Captain Cook?  There was even an astronomical excuse, as Halley's Comet was due to pass over Australia in 1789.

The Lieutenant, by Kate Grenville (2008) has been sitting on my bedside table for a long time. I started reading it and was upset by its intensity and stopped.  I could almost sense the tragedy to unfold over hundreds of years, triggered by the settlement of Sydney by the English.  

It is a wonderful book, sparsely written but so evocative of its environment and the two peoples who found themselves living together, suddenly, in an unforgiving land.   I wish I had read it sooner, and now will have to go and read everything Kate Grenville has ever written.

Daniel Rooke sensibly decamps across an inlet, to set up a little home for viewing the night skies. 

He quickly befriends the local aboriginals, in particular a girl of 13 or 14, wise perhaps beyond her years, named Tagaran.  He learns her language, and develops feelings for her which are a combination of paternal love and perhaps something more.

Acutely aware of his pale and soft shortcomings, he thinks:

What was it like to be Tagaran?  To walk about the wood barefoot and naked, as easy as he had been on Church Street? ....

The urge was irresistible, like hunger or thirst, to unbuckle his shoes, peel off the worn stockings and stand barefoot on Tagaran's eath.  His feet were as white as those fat caterpillars that were found among the rotting wood: vulnerable, weak looking.  He took a few wary steps along the track, then he was jabbed in the heel by something sharp enough to make him gasp. When he looked he saw it was only a piece of twig half the size of a toothpick.  Was that how little it took to prevent him from walking in Tagaran's feet?'.

(Richard Browne 1813) (courtesy State Library of New South Wales)

Eventually and inevitably, tragedy triggers a violent response from the settlers and he must choose between Tagaran's tribe and his own troops. 

I have not read a better distillation of the fascinating aboriginal culture and in particular language.  

(sketches by William Govett 1830)

A wonderful moment includes Daniel's discovery that the Aboriginals have a word for 'heating one's hands in front of the fire and then rubbing one's warmed fingers slowly over someone else's hands to warm those hands in turn' (putuwa).

A book to treasure and read over and over.


Kristine said...

You might have to start with her book, "The Secret River" - also about white men settling in Australia around a similar period. I enjoyed that book a lot.

I've got a copy lying on my bedroom floor (post bedside table clean-out) if you want to borrow it.

Mise said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Jane, it sounds well worth a go. It was sold to me early on in your review, when I read the quotation about God being a way to interrogate one's own heart - very well put, and a pleasing self-containment of the whole troublesome God/self package.

Laura said...

This sounds phenomenal...I love "sparsely written" books. Nothing to hide behind, you know?

Julie@beingRUBY said...

Hi Jane
Oh those bloody English and bloody Sydneysiders.. trouble makers the lot of them.. hahaha

Well I love the artwork you have provided... fascinating.. I will have to go look it up. The State Library is a wonderful source for images.. I could get lost in there for hours.. Have fun xx Julie

Jacqueline @ HOME said...

Hi Jane,
I am wondering if this book might be a bit hard going for me. I think that I will try and find it in a bookshop and have a read, although, I'm not sure if bookshops in England will have it. I will go and do a bit of research. Like Julie though, I love the illustrations. Oh dear, I have just ead through my comment and I sound like a child who only likes the pictures !!haha XXXX

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