The Lieutenant, Kate Grenville

I have a general rule when it comes to my reading tastes: I hate Australian literature. Don’t ask me why, I can’t begin to explain it, it’s a totally irrational response to a whole genre that I struggle to appreciate. It could have something to do with the fact that I was scarred by Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda and Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves in my youth (probably more the latter than the former) … Nonetheless, I tend to find little to appreciate in the majority of Australian literature.

My rule of thumb does, however, exclude several authors, one of whom is Kate Grenville. Grenville is a master story teller and plot weaver. Her writing is sublime and captivating. I devoured her book The Lieutenant and savoured every moment, despite the fact that it is set in the context of first settlement in New South Wales (one of my historical pet hates as far as periods of history go … again, it’s a long story!).

Grenville’s novel traces the experiences of Lieutenant Daniel Rooke, a young man who in so many ways does not belong. Rooke is out of place intellectually, socially and spiritually. His early interest in prime numbers defines him as a misfit amongst his peers and in his family. His journey takes him to school at a naval academy where he becomes fascinated with astronomy and in many ways finds a niche in the world. From school Rooke joins the navy and his physical journey at sea metaphorically mimics his emotional one to find himself.

Eventually Rooke discovers his true self in the colony in New South Wales at Sydney Cove. Here readers are transported to 1788 and the Sydney wilderness, replete with natives and wild-life. Rooke, as astronomer and linguist, takes maneuvers his way into the lives of the local Aboriginal community and develops a somewhat fraught and tortured relationship with an Aboriginal child. It is through this relationship that Rooke discovers parts of himself that he previously did not know existed. Concurrently, readers are taken into the heart of the colonial enterprise and some of the challenging ironies of that experience.

Rooke comes to relearn the world and his place in it, the language he uses to define and describe it and how he approaches it. His passion for astronomy and his attention to detail are eventually transformed into a passion for his fellow man. It is through this transformation that readers come to appreciate the value of a man like Rooke in the context of this place and time.

Kate Grenville’s website.

A review from another blogger.

Couriermail review.

M/C Reviews.

Interview with Grenville.

Sydney Morning Herald review.

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