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Study Guide : The Lieutenant: Reviews

Year 12 : The Lieutenant

Review by Mark Rubbo - Managing Director of Readings - 7th October 2008

The Lieutenant: Kate Grenville

As in her masterful previous novel, The Secret River, Kate Grenville uses the early history of European settlement of Australia as a means to provoke and confront us. The reader is forced to reflect upon what she or he would do when faced with the choice between the ‘intention of evil’ and the intention of good, when the choice of good will almost certainly result in catastrophic personal consequences. Grenville has used the lives of two members of the First Fleet, Marine Lieutenants William Dawes and Watkin Tench, to fashion a novel that is a joy to read, but immensely challenging.

As a child, Thomas Rooke exhibited all the signs of Asperger’s Syndrome, obsessive and socially inept, but what he did exhibit was a prodigious skill in mathematics which earned him a place in the Portsmouth Naval Academy. His mathematical skills brought him to the attention of the Astronomer Royal and it was at his suggestion that Rooke applied to join the expedition to New South Wales as a marine and astronomer. He built his observatory some distance from the settlement, on a promontory overlooking the harbour. In his solitude he observed the new stars and constellations while the new settlement struggled with feeding itself and coming to terms with this new land and its stand-offish inhabitants; a fellow officer confides that he has been deeply troubled because he complied with an order to capture two of the ‘natives’ for the Governor – ‘I wish to God I had not done it! He should not have given the order, but I wish to God I had not obeyed!’

Isolated from the settlement, Rooke is approached by a group of Aboriginals and, over time, forms a bond with some of the children, especially a bright young girl and through her, begins to piece together her language. For the first time in his life, Rooke feels that he has a place in the world. An attack on one of the members of the settlement leads to a punitve expedition being sent out into the bush and Rooke is ordered to join – their task is to bring back six ‘natives’ to be made an example of. His friend Silk is to be the leader of the expedition and he has chosen Rooke to join him. As Rooke protests, Silk assures him that the Aborigines are too elusive and will never be captured; ‘you could think of it as a piece of theatre’.

From the slimmest items of history, Kate Grenville has constructed a tale that will delight and move you. It is fiction at its most powerful, a wonderful story beautifully told that poses timeless and universal questions. 

Review By Alison McCulloch : New York Times - September 25th 2009

CreditIllustration by Selina Cassidy

The Australian history that Kate Grenville learned as a schoolgirl in the 1960s was that of the explorers — “the Aboriginal people were mostly an adjunct,” she has written; “between the lines was the message that they had more or less disappeared.”

Grenville makes that observation in a “writing memoir” about her novel “The Secret River,” loosely based on the life of one of her own ancestors, a convict settler shipped to Australia in 1806. That book, which won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2006, was Grenville’s attempt to use fiction to grapple with Australia’s past in all its wretchedness and glory. Like the history she studied at school, Grenville’s novel also leaves the Aborigines obscured, and deliberately so. Their “inside story,” she explained, was for someone else to tell — she would simply “create a hollow in the book, a space of difference that would be more eloquent than any words I might invent to explain it.”

Grenville’s new novel, “The Lieutenant,” has much in common with “The Secret River.” It, too, is inspired by fact: the lieutenant of the title, Daniel Rooke, is modeled after Lt. William Dawes, a British marine, and the book tells of his experience as a member of the so-called First Fleet of 11 convict-laden ships that reached Australia early in 1788. The Aborigines, as seen through Rooke’s eyes, are again baffling, although thanks to Dawes’s notebook entries, which Grenville weaves through her text, their story has more depth this time.

As with many of Grenville’s characters, Rooke is an outsider, an awkward child genius who grows into an awkward man. A whiz at math, astronomy and lan­guages, he plays a bit part in Britain’s battle against the American revolutionaries before joining the expedition to Australia. There, he manages to isolate himself from the rest of the colony in a makeshift observatory where he contemplates the Southern constellations and gets to know members of the indigenous Cadigal clan. One of them is a young girl who, just as in Dawes’s story, helps Rooke take a few faltering steps into an alien culture.

Grenville is right about the “hollow” — it is indeed eloquent in revealing the hopeless void that lay between the Aborigines and the Berewalgal, as the newcomers are called. When a prisoner is caught stealing potatoes, the governor decides that 200 lashes can serve two purposes: punishing the offender and educating the Aborigines. “There was British civilization, in the form of china plates and toasts to the king, and there was British justice.” A local man named Warungin is the chosen observer, and as he watches the flogging, Rooke watches him. “Warungin was not thinking punishment, justice, impartial,” Rooke thinks. “All he could see was that the Berewalgal had gathered in their best clothes to inflict pain beyond imagining on one of their own.” 

That secondhand view of the Aborigines puts a lot on Rooke’s shoulders and sometimes turns him into a kind of caped Enlightenment Man figure on a mission to expose the cruel truths about “civilized” society.

When Rooke is ordered to join a punitive expedition to capture six Aborigines, he objects. “It was the simplest thing in the world. If an action was wrong, it did not matter whether it succeeded or not,” Rooke realizes. “If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong.”

Review by Jay Parini (author) : The Guardian Saturday 31 January - 2009


Heavenly and earthly bodies

Kate Grenville repossesses history in a story of sea, stars and settlers,
(American author) Jay Parini  Saturday 31 January 2009

The Australian writer Kate Grenville made a deep impression on the reading public with her last novel, The Secret River (2005), an engaging tale of an English thief in the early 19th century who had his death sentence commuted to life in the wilderness of New South Wales (see Book club). In this hauntingly beautiful, terrifying landscape, her protagonist, William Thornhill, discovered opportunities - and problems. As the settlers laid claims to land occupied by Aboriginal people, conflicts of interest arose.

Many of the themes of this novel recur in The Lieutenant, which centres on Daniel Rooke, a young fellow from Portsmouth who has remarkable gifts. At school, his teacher singles him out as a child with uncanny mathematical intuitions. She introduces him to Dr Adair, who secures him a bursary at the Portsmouth Naval Academy. There he first begins to parse the class system, discovering that, although in the world of Church Street, where he grew up, his father was "a man of education and standing, a father to be proud of", in this new environment he becomes "an embarrassment". 

Secret River was the highly circumscribed mind of Thornhill. In The Lieutenant, Rooke's thoughts and perceptions take centre stage; the whole world unfurls from his viewpoint, and little escapes his capacious intellect. He revels in everything from mathematical problems to Latin declensions. "Most of all," we are told, "the heavens were transformed by the Academy's instruction in astronomy and navigation." Rooke contemplates the universe in terms "intuited by a German called Mr Kepler and proved by an Englishman called Mr Newton". It's a heady experience, and the reader shares the excitement of his widening consciousness.

The benevolent Dr Adair introduces his pupil to the Astronomer Royal, Dr Vickery, but there are few opportunities in astronomy for such a boy. Rooke eventually slides into the British navy as a young officer aboard Resolution, a ship that moves on the periphery of the American revolutionary war, and soon discovers that this vessel is really "a floating observatory". He spends his days studying the sextant and working through the arithmetic of longitude and latitude. "On board Resolution his talents seemed at last to have found a home."

Having been knocked on the head by a spar, the young lieutenant seems at a loose end; but then he joins an expedition to New South Wales, where the king plans to establish a large penal colony. He goes along as an astronomer, scanning the heavens in search of a comet that Dr Vickery believes will reappear in the heavens in 1788, but be visible "only from the Southern Hemisphere". He sticks out like a sore thumb aboard Sirius, the flagship of a fleet that takes him and 800 prisoners to Australia.

Grenville writes with a poet's sense of rhythm and imagery. Here she describes Rooke's arrival in New South Wales, after nine months at sea: "Beyond the cliff an enormous body of quiet water curved away to the west. Sirius glided past bays lined with crescents of yellow sand and headlands of dense forest. There was something about this vast hidden harbour - bay after perfect bay, headland after shapely headland - that put Rooke in a trance. He felt he could have travelled along it for ever into the heart of this unknown land."

The other characters in the story - most of them fellow officers - swim in and out of Rooke's ken, and they have a sketchiness that, at times, seems disconcerting. Needless to say, the lieutenant prefers his own company, and persuades the governor to let him establish his own observatory on a remote headland some distance from the main camp.

Rooke's lonely roost materialises, with the help of convicts, and he begins his work as astronomer; but the problems that beset the settlers have an impact on Rooke as well. The lack of food is paramount, and the threat of starvation is compounded by the fact that the local people - dark-skinned Aboriginal figures who glide suddenly into view and disappear as swiftly - show few signs of friendliness. Conflicts arise, and when the convict who is a chief hunter for the settlers is pierced with a spear, the governor decides to teach them a lesson. Poor Rooke is conscripted into the party sent to get revenge. The problem is, he has fallen in love with Tagaran, a native girl, who visits him regularly in his lonely observatory. She has been teaching him her language, and he has been putting his remarkable linguistic skills to use.

Grenville explores the natural rifts that arise between settlers and native people with a deep understanding of the ambiguities inherent in such conflicts. A brooding violence permeates these relations, and there is mounting tension as Rooke allows Tagaran to examine his rifle, which fascinates her. The reader wonders if Rooke is being set up here, whether perhaps Tagaran has been commissioned to get close to the lieutenant to acquire some knowledge of the white man's mysterious powers.

All Rooke wants is to stay in New South Wales. He loves its landscape, its heavenly and earthly bodies. But having been tapped by his fellow officers to go and teach them a lesson they will never forget, he finds himself in a moral quandary that threatens to ruin him.

Although based on the diaries of William Dawes, an English officer who travelled with a fleet bringing the first convicts to Australia in 1888, The Lieutenant should not be mistaken for history, as Grenville warns us in a detailed author's note. She has repossessed history here, transmogrifying what she has found. She occupies the mind of Rooke with a kind of vivid insistence, and his isolation - and moral dilemmas - become ours.


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