Thursday, 12 March 2009
The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
OZ was paradise for the scientists of the 19th century. But for the people who had lived there for thousands of years, it was paradise soiled, wrecked by the incomers who claimed their land and ruined it.
In Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant, a disturbed but brilliant young astronomer with a British expedition learns the language of the Aborigines of Sydney.
As he learns to speak to them, he becomes civilised. So he can choose to do right when he is confronted by his own garrison’s treachery.
The story is based on an actual person - Marine Lieutenant Warwick Dawes, who made the first grammar of an Aborigine language.
But Grenville has made him into the fictional Thomas Rooke, a scholarship boy making a naval career the basis for scientific research.
He’s a lovely character, and Grenville writes him beautifully.
Rooke’s respectful and mutually interested relationship with a brilliant Aborigine child is absolutely charming.
He realises that the Aborigines are using the child to learn as much about him - and the other whites - as he’s learning about them.
And he comes on that dreadful choice: which side should he take when the whites turn on the Aborigines?
It’s a delicate and fine piece of writing - and fascinating if you want to know about Australia and the Aussies.