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Book Review: The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

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I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, and I read even less Australian fiction (call me unpatriotic if you like), so Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant was an unusual sort of read for me. However, I did find myself enjoying it much more than I thought I would, as a result of both the writing and the subject matter.

The Lieutenant is set in 1788 and focuses on – you guessed it – a lieutenant, Daniel Rooke, who is sent to New South Wales on the First Fleet to help with the establishment of a British colony. A keen astronomer, Rooke sees this as an opportunity to set up an observatory away from the camp and to begin the scientific work that he hopes will make him famous. He strikes up a relationship with a young Aboriginal girl and some members of her tribe; and is beginning to forget his position as a soldier, when a man from the colony is fatally wounded by a native. What follows are events and situations that will change the course of his life.

At 302 pages, with fairly large print, The Lieutenant was by no means a taxing read. The writing is simple and straightforward; it conveys its message effectively and isn’t laden with convoluted descriptions. It is highly absorbing; and although the situations Rooke faces are worlds away from the situations many people today would face, the reader is able to empathize with his character, as they can relate to the emotions he is experiencing as a result of his situations. Rooke finds himself facing very difficult decisions: namely, concerning his loyalty to his country and the governor versus his loyalty to the natives he has grown close to. Virtually everyone finds themselves having to make a difficult decision at one point or another; and in this way they realize that the emotions that Rooke is feeling are not so different to the emotions they may have felt, and can relate to and understand Rooke’s dilemma.

One of the finest aspects of this book for me was its portrayal of interactions between native Aboriginal Australians and early British settlers. The reader was able to examine the ways in which superior members of the infant colony (such as the governor) interacted with the natives, as well as the way in which Rooke interacted with them. This gave a different dimension to the novel, with readers being able to gain an insight into the contrasting opinions Rooke and the governor held towards the natives.

The Lieutenant was based on the language notebooks of William Dawes, a young lieutenant of marines who was on board the First Fleet and had a keen interest in astronomy. He forged a relationship with some of the native Australians and made an attempt to develop a record of their language and grammar. The fact that this novel is based on recorded events makes it all the more interesting. It is quite thought-provoking to try and imagine the varied reactions of the natives when they discovered that white men had sailed to their land and were trying to claim ownership of it. The Lieutenant doesn’t really look at the idea of ownership, something which is often heavily examined in books of this nature; instead Grenville focuses on particular natives and their reactions towards the soldiers, which is just as effective, if not more so, than tackling the concept of ownership head on.

On the whole, I found The Lieutenant a very enjoyable read and an interesting glimpse of one writer’s interpretation of Australia in 1788. Grenvillle manages to draw the reader thoroughly into the novel through her evocative imagery and concise, economical writing. This is a book well worth reading if you have ever found yourself interested in the First Fleet and the early settlement of Australia.

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