Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kate Grenville: The Lieutenant

My first encounter with Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant (Text, ISBN 978-1-921351-78-5) was in a warm winter in Alice Springs. Kate was a member of a panel I chaired at the Eye of the Storm writers' festival there, and she read from the book and talked about what had influenced her to write it. I didn't read the book in its entirety until some months after this, but encountering it first in what to me was -- is -- the foreignness of Alice Springs helped me understand the central character of Daniel Rooke a little more.
A visitor to Alice Springs can feel very much the stranger, divorced and alien from both the black and white people and the land. This feeling is at the heart of Grenville's powerful historical novel. She explores it through Daniel Rooke. Grenville hints in the early chapters that today he might be diagnosed with Aspergers or some similar form of autism. He has a gift with numbers and categorisation and "he had no memories other than of being an outsider". He is mistreated by his peers, who ridicule his poor social skills.
These improve somewhat when he joins the marines, but this leads to him being wounded in a naval battle in the American War of Independence. Recovering from this, he learns that an expedition is to set out for New South Wales and he contrives to be on board the Sirius as astronomer.
I had some problems with history here. The Sirius of course was a ship in the First Fleet, which was under the command of Arthur Phillip. In Grenville's book, Phillip becomes James Gilbert, Rooke is a character inspired by William Dawes. I am not sure why the historical names do not have a place in this fiction. Sydney Cove and Botany Bay are there, as are the Cadigal people themselves. Grenville even has a little joke as Rooke, sailing out of Sydney Harbour, stands "at the stern and looked towards the point the natives knew as Tarra, and which he had tried to name after Dr Vickery, but which people seemed determined to call after himself". She is referring, of course, to Dawes Point. Why then can we not have characters called Phillip and Dawes?
Grenville also acknowledges that she is using Cadigal words and conversation in the book, and her story is inspired by "recorded events". So why do we have this need to shuffle in extraneous characters?
I am conscious that there has been some debate about novelists interpreting history, but history is not Grenville's key theme. She is telling a story about, fundamentally, communication, and she is using the well-established genre of the historical novel. I would have been more then happy to have had Rooke named Dawes and Gilbert named Phillip.
But that is immaterial to the core theme, and where this novel excels. It transpires that Rooke, the outsider, has more in common with the Cadigal people than his own. With Tagaran (again, historically Patyegarang), he forms a close bond and sets out to record the language of the Cadigal. This is perhaps the most moving, though problematic, part of the book.
Grenville very clearly defines her crucial message: "This exchange was not a language lesson. For the first time, he and Tagaran were on the same side of the mirror of language, simply speaking to each other. Understanding went in both directions. Once two people shared language, they could no longer use it to hide".
But for this reader there was a problem with a lack of sexual tension between Rooke and Tagaran. We know that Rooke is a man with a mighty member, which he is able to use, from the Antigua scene. It's difficult to accept him almost sexless in his interactions with a naked Tagaran.
That quibble aside, this is a book for a rainy Sunday afternoon, biscuits to hand, and constant cups of tea.

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