Review: The Lieutentant, by Kate Grenville

In every situation in his life, Rooke had seen that there were people with a power of personality that gave them effortless authority.  It was not to do with rank or position: the governor lacked it. Rooke did not possess it either, he knew that about himself, but Silk had it, and so did Gardiner.

And so did Tagaran.  (p. 175)

Daniel Rooke was an introverted boy, in love with mathematics and astronomy.  He was fortunate to receive a place in the Portsmouth Naval Academy, vaulting him into a different social class and affording him the opportunity to meet the Astronomer Royal.  At 15 he left school and was assigned to a ship supplying His Majesty’s forces in the American colonies.   He proved to be a skilled navigator, but naive as to the realities of military service.  Rooke returned home permanently changed by war’s violence and an early encounter with slaves in Antigua.  But he was still a young man, and in 1786, when Rooke was 24, the Astronomer Royal recommended him to serve on one of the first ships taking prisoners to Australia.  The journey began in 1788; serving in the same fleet was Captain Silk, a colleague from Rooke’s earlier tour of duty.  On arrival, the English found the landscape much less hospitable than expected, with very little edible agriculture and game.  Not surprisingly, the native people were also less than thrilled by their presence.

Rooke managed to convince his commander to allow him to set up an observatory some distance from the main camp, and there he performed “official duties” in relative isolation.  While the men in the main camp struggled to gain the natives’ trust, Rooke received regular visits from a group of mostly women and children.  He had a special rapport with a girl named Tagaran.  Their mutual curiosity allowed them to bridge the language barrier, teaching each other words and progressing to real conversations.  Rooke kept elaborate notebooks, trying to make a record of Tagaran’s language.  He developed a level of respect for Tagaran and her tribe that was far more advanced than those in the main camp.  But eventually conflict arose between the main camp and the natives, and Rooke faced a series of ethical dilemmas that threatened his relationship with Tagaran and caused him to question everything he once held true.  The resolution of this internal conflict was in some ways inevitable, and yet quite moving.

The Lieutenant is similar in some ways to Grenville’s earlier book, The Secret River.  Both explore the conflict between white settlers (invaders?) and native Australians.   By focusing on feelings and inner conflict more than violence, The Lieutenant offers a rich and sophisticated take on Australia’s history.

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10 thoughts on “Review: The Lieutentant, by Kate Grenville

  1. I loved Secret River, but had heard a few less than positive things about this one. I’m glad you saw similarities between the two – I’ll approach it with less caution now.

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