Lieutenant – Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville’s Lieutenant is based on a true story about the first British colony in New South Wales.

The story begins in Portsmouth with the character of Daniel Rooke, and the history of his childhood. Grenville presents a thoughtful and interesting account of this unusual young man. The character has elements we might recognise as autism – an ease with manipulating numbers and some difficulty in human communications.  In a way this is a trope that has become common nowadays: this book was published in 2008 – five years after the quite seminal Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night which I guess influenced it in some way.

Grenville uses small details to build up a picture of Rooke, so that the story is never forced.  Despite some difficulties at school, he succeeds in all kinds of ways academically, developing an interest in astronomy and navigation and finally heading off to Australia in the first party of colonisers.  In Australia Rooke sets up his observatory on an isolated spot overlooking the first colony. He has been asked to monitor the predicted arrival of a comet in the southern hemisphere, and proceeds to do that.

We gain insights into life in the colony, the hardships and the harsh discipline, and this last is shown through the shocked eyes of the aborigines who are appalled at the cruel and brutal treatment meted out to offenders.

Grenville develops a number of characters who will play a part in the novel’s denouement and again these are all introduced and portrayed with the simplest of touches, with convincing details and a real sense of their human nature and frailty. Rooke befriends a young native girl and begins to learn her language. Somehow she reaches past his communication difficulties and they become very close.  I did find this point stretched my credulity a little!

Inevitably there is a moment of crisis and conflict between the British and the natives, who are deemed to have transgressed against the laws of the colony. Rooke is instructed to take part in an expedition to punish the offenders.  He is not happy but sets out nevertheless, intimidated by the brutal discipline enforced on traitors and dissenters by the British.  Realising the extent of the brutality envisaged by the British governor, Rooke is shocked and horrified.  He makes a decision that will change his life forever.

I really enjoyed this book. The ending was powerful and moving. Grenville never lectures and you aren’t forced to think about the implications of this story; she never invites you to, never in any way intrudes.  But close the book and sit back, and pretty soon all kinds of issues come to the surface.

Maybe a different writer would have made more of these themes, drawn them out further through a series of images and symbols.  Grenville doesn’t do that, limiting herself instead to a kind of restricted viewpoint – telling the story through Rooke’s eyes.  Nevertheless it’s a book with a powerful message about colonisation and human values, about friendship and loyalty.

The Guardian – Review

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