Published: 2009 by Canongate Books
My copy: Bought secondhand in paperback
Memorable quote: “He hoped that all understanding might be as simple as a matter of scale. If a man had not a week, not a year, not even a lifetime – if he had millennia, aeons – all the seemingly erratic movements of heavenly bodies and earthly vicissitudes would turn out to have meaning.”
In her rules for writers the great Hilary Mantel warns: “people don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.” This is true, but in Daniel Rooke, the Lieutenant of the title, Kate Grenville has crafted an exceptional character. Not only does she inhabit his mind and his thoughts in a way that is utterly convincing but also, because of the sort mind possessed by Rooke, he allows his creator to share the most intricate environmental details in a way that is believable. From a very early age Rooke finds it easier to understand mathematical and linguistic patterns than he does other people. Set in the 18th Century, the novel follows Rooke’s journey as his prodigious talents take him from naval academy in Portsmouth, to a role in the marines, and finally to his coveted role as an astronomer in the land of the unknown: a brand new penal colony in New South Wales, Australia. Through Rooke’s eyes, Grenville shares with her readers the strangeness and freshness of this new environment without ever wasting a word, although by contrast Rooke’s social awkwardness with his fellow marines can leave the other colonist characters feeling rather sketch-like and incomplete.
The main thrust of the narrative explores issues of racial tension, as the colonists interact with the natives of New South Wales. In the self-imposed isolation of his observatory Rooke begins to learn the language of the indigenous population and forges a powerful connection with an inquisitive young girl. Although written afterwards, The Lieutenant is a chronological prequel to Grenville’s bestseller, The Secret River, which I read several years ago now. Whereas that was a very dark book, which revealed at length the closed mindedness and cruelty of the European settlers, The Lieutenant is more hopeful. Indeed I felt at times that Rooke seemed rather too idealised and modern in his outlook so it was reassuring to read in Grenville’s afterword that she was drawing on the notebooks of a real historical figure, the British Marine William Dawes. I enjoyed the passages chronicling Rooke’s interaction with the girl Tagaran and her people and there is something very touching – as well as fascinating – in his hunger to learn her language. Rooke’s attempts to derive grammar and rules from the snippets of Cadigal conversation he begins to understand could make for dry reading if they didn’t raise so many fascinating questions about communication itself and about the gestures and meanings that transcend the stiff rules Rooke clings to.
Overall this is a short but enjoyable read, and a welcome balance to the darkness of The Secret River, although knowing that the events of that novel will follow adds a further level of tension. I found the ending of The Lieutenant rather rushed and not entirely satisfying although I do appreciate that to have explored further the circumstances surrounding the protagonist’s ultimate decision would probably have jeopardised the tone of simplicity and measured observation that make Rooke – and his story – so distinctive.