What a breath of fresh air this story was after slogging through Moby-Dick! The Lieutenant is the second of three historical novels set in colonial times in Sydney that Grenville has (or is) writing, the first of which was the much acclaimed The Secret River, and the third of which is due out later in 2011.
The Lieutenant is based on the life of William Dawes, who sailed to New South Wales on the first fleet and set up Sydney’s first observatory on the point which now bears his name, though in Grenville’s fictionalised version of history, his name has been changed to Daniel Rooke. Others have had their names and character fictionalised too, including Commodore Arthur Phillip, Watkin Tench, Phillip’s ‘game keeper’ McIntyre, and all the aboriginal characters.
As a young boy, Daniel Rooke is drawn to mathematics. He particularly likes prime numbers, [p4]: “Like him, they were solitaries.” To Rooke, mathematics is a language, as is all science. Yet Rooke is also a gifted linguist, learning to speak five languages, including Greek and Latin. It is his mathematics and love for stars which the Observer Royal identifies and which gains him a berth on the first fleet as the colony’s observer. A comet is due to appear in southern skies soon after the settlement is founded and Rooke is sent to observe it. After arriving in the very different world of Sydney Cove, Rooke requests permission to set up his observatory with telescope and other measuring equipment on the point on the western side of Sydney Cove – above what would become known as the Rocks. This suits him perfectly. He is a loner, and prefers to escape all the duties of serving in His Majesty’s marines.
Whilst his ambitious friend, Silk, begins to write an account of the settlement to be published in London, and tries to get some of the first words of the native language when they finally are persuaded into the camp, Rooke begins to build a relationship with Tagaran, sharing not only words, but the structure of language and a burgeoning friendship. It is these encounters which show Grenville at her best. They are moving and wonderfully capture what the first encounters might have been like, and the motivations of those on each side.
Grenville’s wonderful opening chapters create a solid foundation for Rooke’s character. His fellow student’s boast [p9] that the British Empire and his own ‘illustrious family’ would ‘collapse if slavery were abolished’ get short shrift in Rooke’s logical mind. (Dawes would, after his time in NSW, go to the West Indies and campaign for the abolition of slavery). To Rooke [p10], “Euclid seemed an old friend. … it was as if [Rooke] had been speaking a foreign language all his life, and had just now heard someone else speaking it too.” At the Naval Academy, Rooke is shown to have perfect pitch and loves fugues most of all, because [p13], “A fugue was not singular, as a melody was, but plural. It was a conversation.” Stars are the capstone to his characterisation, for in them, Rooke sees “the unity of all things. To injure any was to damage all.”
These skills, interests and moral compass serve Rooke well when he meets Tagaran and begins his quest to understand the natives’ language. And though he understands much about it – “It was a language whose very cadence sounded like forgiveness” [p254] – it is Tagaran who learns more about what this white man, this Berewalgal, and the extent of his friendship that astonishes and amazes.
Other formative experiences are explored, such as a fellow lieutenant’s refusal to obey a command, but only enough to establish the platform for the dilemma that Rooke faces when the clash of black and white begin. He even asks himself [p112] as he sees the lieutenant hang whether he himself has ever been faced with such a decision, and what he might do if he is.
The story is written with such economy and grace that it is hard to comprehend how such weighty issues and their resolution are so wonderfully defined. There is no flaring drama here, but rather smouldering sharing, promises, realisations, awareness of shared humanity. The language scenes, using quotes of Cadigal language from Dawes original notebooks, could have become quite dry and staid, but Grenville deftly co-opts them into her purpose and themes. They are beautifully handled. Rooke slowly becomes aware that the cold and strict rigour of scientific enquiry can only take his understanding of the world and the people in it so far. The rest is organic, inexact, shifty.
The ending, in Antigua, works well and made me think a little of Jacob in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Both Jacob and Rooke find themselves on the far side of the world thinking back to the most important days and person of their life and what they both mean to them.
I really enjoyed The Lieutenant and am looking forward to reading Grenville’s third historical novel when realised later this year. If it’s anything like The Secret River and The Lieutenant, then we are in for another treat. Having read a few books on the early colony of Sydney myself in the last few months, there are plenty of stories to be told – and plenty of myths to be expunged!
Lisa over at ANZ Lit Lovers also liked The Lieutenant. Her (more extensive) review can be read here.
The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
Source: local municipal library