The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2008
Borrowed from the library.
How is it that I have never read Kate Grenville before? I have to thank my friend, Maria, for introducing me to this fine Australian author.
The Lieutenant is a historical novel that explores the issues of conquest, settlement and displacement with a poet’s sense of grace and imagery. It is also a book about language, learning, and meeting “the other”.
Daniel Rooke always felt himself an outsider. At school his best friends were books and he loved learning about systems and how things fit together. After serving in the army he finds himself at loose ends. When given the opportunity to travel with the First Fleet to Australia he is eager to go. He will be searching the skies for the return of a comet and reporting back to the Royal Astronomer.
Of course he would go to New South Wales. In some faraway place within him where eagerness still smouldered, he even looked forward to it. He bought notebooks and ledgers and experienced the first pulse of pleasure he had felt for a long time, running a hand over blank leaves that he will fill with the data of this unknown land: the weather, the stars, perhaps the quadrupeds and even the habitations of ants. From page 39.
Once at the place the Navy has chosen as a settlement Rooke quickly finds a area away from the sailors and convicts and builds a small shack as his observatory. With the help of a native girl he begins to learn the local language, and begins to question what is happening around him.
Rook knew Gardiner as well as he knew any man, but had never dreamed he might speak with this depth of bitterness. Or how some answering sharpness was responding. He had not known how much he had come to dislike the governor, that secretive sour man.
“Brought in, that is what he calls it. The natives were brought in. Never mind that they were kidnapped. Violently. Against their will. They were crying, Rooke. I tried to show them we meant no harm, but they were wailing as if their hearts would break! Who will say how it really was? Tell the truth about it?” From page 112.
Rooke goes on to learn much about the language of the native people, the Cadigal. In the end he must choose between his allegiance to his superiors or his own beliefs.
The novel is based on the true story of a man named William Dawes who traveled to New South Wales with the British First Fleet and left notebooks filled with phonetic translations from the Cadigal language. Grenville tells this story quietly but with a strength and beauty that stayed with me after I had finished this book. I look forward to reading her other novels.