Ah, the joys of working in a bookshop. This book is embargoed until later this month, but I managed to get my grubby little hands on an advance copy, since I am a big fan of Kate Grenville. And by that, I mean I, like everyone else, was swept away by The Secret River, despite never having heard of her before. To be honest, before I started reading this, my bosses had told me that they didn’t like it very much, and after reading the blurb, I was worried she was trying to cash in on the formula that made The Secret River so popular.
The eponymous Lieutenant is Thomas Rooke, a man sent to the penal colony of New South Wales on the First Fleet, not as a convict, but as a Navy marine. While previous experiences in the Navy conflict with his highly scientific mind, and his hopes of becoming an astronomer, he hopes for the best in this new land. However, once the Fleet arrives, Rooke separates himself from the rest of the settlers, and begins to discover that this land is full of far more surprises than passing comets.
Ok, I have to get this out of the way first. Yes. Kate Grenville has written a novel very similar to The Secret River. But no, that does not make it bad. While the elements that made her last novel so good (well, the bits I liked, anyway) are present again in this novel, they both feel very different. Both feature solitary males going out into the Australian bush in the beginnings of white Australian history, and both deal with their interaction with the Aboriginal populations. While The Secret History, however, deals with this on a far more intense and psychological level, The Lieutenant, while certainly not a happy book, seems almost to have a sense of defeat, right from the beginning. The scenes of Rooke happily interacting with Aboriginals, in the hope of learning their language through the scientific method, are so happily naive, that you know they are not going to end well. And I like the casual rejection of the idea that a language can be learned scientifically and cut off from the culture from which it has come – as a student of foreign languages, it really appeals to me.
This book is based very closely on a real person – William Dawes, from whom Dawes Point is now named. His life, having researched thoroughly (on wiki…), is pretty artfully brought out by Grenville, giving his young fascination with science a focus that borders on autism. I liked Rooke. He was of his time, while still being progressive. I tend to think that most contemporary authors writing about times of colonialism and imperialism tend to be very heavy handed in the “look at how wrong these terrible people are” (not that I disagree at all, I might add), but honestly, if there were that many people who thought progressively about these things in the past, they wouldn’t have existed.
I said to myself I wouldn’t compare these two works, but that seems to have gone down the drain a bit. There are certain similarities, and no doubt, detractors of The Lieutenant will quote them ad infinitum. But ultimately, the two novels do very different things. The Lieutenant is a much smaller, much more intimate musing on the ideas of friendship, language and culture, and proves an ultimately diverting and enjoyable, if short, read.