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The Lieutenant, by Kate Grenville.

October 9, 2012

The Lieutenant, by Kate Grenville. Melbourne, Vic. : Text Publishing, 2008.

A wonderful novel about the first contact between British settlers and the Indigenous people of Australia and the impact of that experience on one man.

In the past, I have been critical of how Kate Grenville treated Indigenous characters in The Secret River and Sarah Thornhill. Then I finally got a copy of The Lieutenant, and discovered that in it, the second of her colonail trilogy, her depiction of the Indigenous people was excellent. Using the notebooks kept by William Dawson, one of the officers who accompanied the First Fleet, as a basis for her main character, she traces his realization of their, and his own, humanity.

In this book, Grenville does a fine job of using history as a starting point for fiction. She uses some of the same source material that Inga Clendinnen used in her historical work, Dancing with Strangers, but she goes in a difference direction. She starts by creating the character, Daniel Rooke, the fictional version of the real William Dawson. As a young boy, she depicts him as having a prodigious mathematical ability but no social skills. Contacts with an eminent astronomer resulted in his passion for the precision of the stars but no employment, so Rooke goes to sea. Fighting for the British in the American Revolution leaves him wounded and dubious about what it means to be totally under the command of the King and his officers. After a time of drifting, Rooke is only too glad to sign on as the astronomer for the first ship taking officers and prisoners to New South Wales.

On arrival in Australia, the fictional Rooke use his status as astronomer to set up a solitary camp and telescope observation station where he can isolate himself from the rest of the settlers. Various Indigenous people visit him there; men as well as groups of women and children. One girl, Tagaran, is particularly bright and inquisitive. She agrees to teach him her language if he will teach her his. She remind him of his dear sister when she was ten or twelve. As they explore languages they achieve a special closeness in the shared joy of discovery and learning. Rooke realizes that his friendship with the girl is opening parts of himself he has never acknowledged. The more he becomes aware of her shared humanity, the more he becomes aware of his own. Their intimacy becomes different and greater than sexual intimacy, although that might have developed over time. The lessons and the friendship are interpreted when “the iron laws of time and place” take over. Rooke is required to be part of a group of soldiers sent out “teach the natives a lesson.” In the process, Rooke faces the moral dilemma of whether he will act “as an instrument of the King” or as a human who values other humans.

As always, Grenville’s novel is much more than its plot summary. Her descriptions of times and places are superb. Her creation of the character of Rooke is masterful. He and his dilemma are the major focus. Although the book is not written in first person, we see all the other major figures through his eyes, but they, too, have individuality and life. Tagaran, who becomes Rook’s friend, is particularly alive; mischievous and mysterious and sometimes quicker to figure out what is going on than Rooke. In conveying their relationship, Grenville relies on notebooks which Dawson kept, as she carefully documents in her acknowledgments. With his help, her Indigenous characters become real as they have not done in her other novels. Sadly, the magic she finds here does not allow her to give voice to the Indigenous characters in the last book in the trilogy.

In relating the shared learning between Rooke and Tagaran, Grenville explores the meaning of words and language and communication between individuals and cultures. When they meet, Rooke observes that Tagaran, like his sister, is “old enough to want to look into another’s eyes, one human to another, and still young enough to be fearless.” He realizes that

Language was more than a list of words, more than a collection of fragments all jumbled together like a box of nuts and bolts. Language was a machine. To make it work, each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts….It required someone who could dismantle the machine, see how it works, and put it to use: a man of system, a man of science.”

His own temperament and skills made him the right person “to acquire the native tongue.” Gradually the two moved into real communication, into “the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.” While this excited him, it led Rooke into unfamiliar territory. “Both the language and the act of learning had burst out of the boundaries he had tried to put around them.” They led into the unknown where he was forced to learn “the language of doubt.”

You did not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who spoke it to you. His friendship with Tagaran was not a list of objects, or words for things eaten or not eaten, thrown or not thrown. It was the slow constructing of a map of a relationship….a leap into the unknown.

In the end, Rooke looked back into the night sky and thought about how the natives would have different names and stories from those he used.

But whatever you called the stars, their light and their patterns were the same. Beyond the chatter of human argument was their plain statement: Every thing is part of every other thing, now and forever.

After his excursion with the other troops, he saw that he no longer was the man he had been when he arrived in Australia.

That Daniel Rooke seemed to have been replaced, syllable by syllable, by some other man. He knew those naked people now. He did not understand them, but he could no longer think of them as strangers.

He was faced with a choice of which man he would be moving ahead.

The insights which Grenville gives Rooke are important ones for us all as we reach across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Our reality is interrelated and not based solely on our particular names and stories. Even when we can not understand people, we can seek to communicate. We need not treat them as inferior aliens.

I strongly recommend The Lieutenant to all readers as historical fiction that lives up to the difficult requirements of that genre. It is a very enjoyable book and a deeply moving one that traces a man’s moral growth. And anyone who loves language will be delighted with Grenville’s insight into words and interactions across cultural boundaries.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2012 9:29 am

    I loved this book. My friends who were bound up with the Thornhill family were disappointed that it didn’t take their story further, but as a linguist (i.e. someone who studies language as opposed to someone who speaks a great many) I was completely enthralled. The only other occasion I’ve come across an author showing such insight into the way in which language works is Mary Doria Russell in ‘The Sparrow’. This was the book I gave to everyone for Christmas and birthdays the year it was published.

    • October 12, 2012 3:40 pm

      I loved it, too, especially the language parts and how language can work to bridge us to others and ourselves. I don’t know Russell’s The Sparrow, but will try to find it.

  2. October 11, 2012 6:15 pm

    Fascinating review Marilyn … particularly as this book received quite mixed reviews, which is one of the reasons it is still on my shelves I think. I love the quote: that he had been “replaced, syllable by syllable”. I’m intrigued about the Indigenous voice issue because with The secret river she said she didn’t want to try the Indigenous voice/perspective feeling that was somewhere she couldn’t and perhaps even shouldn’t go. It’s a tricky area. Fiction is about the imagination and so writers should go where they want to go, but sometimes, particularly with groups who are oppressed, who lack equal power, it can feel as though speaking as or for them is yet another incursion into their space. It sounds like Grenville, though, has done it well and sensitively here.

    BTW Your description of the an anglo person learning and sharing culture with an indigenous person reminds me a little of “Caleb’s crossing”.

    • October 20, 2012 9:23 am

      Thanks. Caleb’s Crossing is one I haven’t read and will try to get.
      When I taught and wrote about African Americans, I worried about that and leaned over backwards to use their own words whenever I could. I tried to act as amplifier rather than outside authority.

      • October 20, 2012 4:24 pm

        It’s a tricky one … Almost banned if you do and damned if you don’t, despite good and sensitive intentions, don’t you think?

      • October 23, 2012 9:11 am

        Yes, Sue, damned either way. But I taught the course anyway because I felt like the only way to get beyond the lack of knowledge about the African American story was for students black and white to have a fuller, more accurate understanding of the past we have inherited.

      • October 23, 2012 4:13 pm

        Good for you … And sorry for the typo! Silly iPad autocorrect … Drives me batty when I don’t notice what it does.

  3. October 12, 2012 3:36 pm

    Thanks. I obviously share your fascinations. The line between exploiting someone else’s story and ignoring them is difficult. I’ve been on both sides. I like Grenville here, but her earlier comment bothered me.
    I was surprised that The Lieutenant had mixed reviews, but it is an unusual book that I suppose might not interest a wide group of readers. I just loved it.

  4. October 12, 2012 6:01 pm

    I think it’s a pity that the trilogy has been blighted by Sarah Thornhill. I have been reading Grenville for years, and have sought out her backlist ever since discovering The Idea of Perfection when it won the Orange Prize. But if I had read ST first, I don’t think I would have done that.

  5. October 13, 2012 9:31 am

    As you know, I did start with the Thornhills and was very ambivalent about them. Glad to be encouraged to go back and read some of her earlier ones.

    • October 13, 2012 6:51 pm

      As Lisa said, The idea of perfection is a wonderful book. It was around my third book of hers that I’d read, and I’d liked them all to then, but this is still the standout for me. It’s not historical fiction, though, as quite a few of hers have been.


  1. Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Marilyn of Me, You and Books « Whispering Gums
  2. Writing about Indigenous Peoples: Grenville and Clendinnen « Me, you, and books

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