Kate Grenville’s new novel reads like a visit to a cultural anthropology museum’s long-awaited exhibit. Through a suspenseful tale, we learn much about the Cadigal tribe of New South Wales, as well as early astronomical techniques. Yet, the calm, finely crafted prose creates a sense of distance and timelessness. After building his wooden observatory and hut, Lieutenant Rooke reflects that he has been ‘compressed, like a limb squeezed with a tourniquet…now, at last, he could expand to fill whatever space was proper to him.’ This style befits the work of astronomer concerned with matters on a grand scale and prevents The Lieutenant from sounding like an encyclopedia entry or an Indiana Jones movie.
Grenville intersperses subtle critiques of the British Empire’s methods from the book’s first few pages. Sailors are publicly hanged merely for verbalizing disagreement with official orders. Military leaders blast rifles to force the attention of New South Wales’ wary natives, botching their first impression. Even the main character’s name, Rooke, suggests a chessboard, as he is still a player in someone else’s game even when he believes he has earned some personal autonomy.
Socially awkward, possibly somewhere on the autistic spectrum, Lieutenant Rooke forges a connection to humanity through observing the island’s natives and gradually learning their language. His platonic friendship with a native girl, Tagaran, eventually brings him to question his role as a representative of the Empire and to make independent moral decisions. Grenville shows how Rooke’s scientifically minded character prepares him for this kind of independent thinking. He watches, learns, and takes notes on the people and places he sees, then acts based on his observations rather than on preconceived assumptions.
Sixteenth century British astronomer and abolitionist William Dawes inspired much of this novel, with fictional narrative to fill gaps in the historical record. This book provides plenty of historical background, with information on construction techniques, military justice, meteorological forecasting methods, timekeeping, and navigation of the day. The language and appearance of the Aboriginal people also come directly from Dawes’ actual notebooks, as do the astronomical data and some of the interactions between the British officers. The Lieutenant requires some thought and attention, especially in the first third of the novel as Grenville sets the stage for her drama.
Yet the developing story pulls readers along, watching the gentle personal connection of Rooke and Tagaran as they learn each other’s languages. Set amidst the backdrop of empire building and violent cultural clashes, their friendship turns a corner when Tagaran teaches Rooke not just the Cadigal equivalent for another English word, but something signifying a unique concept. Putuwa, to warm one’s fingers by the fire and then take the hand of another person, comes to the elderly Rooke’s mind again during the final chapter, when he reviews his situation and the changed course of his life. The word comes to symbolize the mutuality of his connection with the indigenous people – they bring each other warmth and knowledge.
Scientific field observations as literary narrative hark back to centuries ago, to the days of the Origin of Species and to Captain Cook’s descriptive logs. An educated person could be a writer, scientist, sailor, and humanist with opinions on a variety of topics, and everything would come through in his or her diary. Grenville’s The Lieutenant draws upon and builds on that tradition, with historical and technical information enriching her distinctive, human characters’ journey towards intercultural understanding.
The Lieutenant is available through Canongate Books, Edinburgh – and also at Pleasanton’s Towne Centre Books. Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s leading and best-loved authors. Her website has a section where she discusses the making of The Lieutenant in detail: http://www.users.bigpond.com/kgrenville/the_lieutenant/about_the_lieutenant.html