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.