English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

DATE FINISHED: May 27th, 2012

RATED: **** 

SYNOPSIS:  A Manx smuggling ship sees its way out of a tight spot by offering itself up to charter. When the initial plan to offload its travellers fails dismally, Captain Illiam Quilliam Kewley eventually concedes that the only way out of his current conundrum is indeed to take his ragbag assortment of English Passengers all the way to Tasmania, on their doomed-to-failure plan to discover the original Garden of Eden. As their lengthy journey commences, the story is interspersed with the narrative of Peevay, who provides the voice of the aboriginal in an also-doomed fight against the colonial invasion. Eventually the two stories collide.

THOUGHTS: Kneale uses multiple narrators to advance his story, shifting every few pages between different voices.  Surprisingly, this works, as Kneale has a gift for characterisation, and the different voices are both clearly distinguished from each other and easily recognisable.  The main characters are Captain Kewley, aiming for subterfuge and generally becoming an expert in altering his plans; Reverend Wilson, a pompous, deluded geologist theologist whose random belief that the Garden of eden is to be found in Tasmania is the point of the expedition; Doctor Potter, whose voice is heard little to begin with but increasingly towards the end, as his own sinister reasons for joining the expedition become clear; and Peevay, the mixed race aboriginal who watches his world disintegrate around him under colonial ‘leadership’.  Interspersed with these more consistent narratives are various voices from bit-part players, and this mixed bag combined, the story advances in a surprisingly linear fashion.

Due to the constant changes in narrator, it was initially easy to read this book in short bursts.  However, before I was halfway through, I had begun to find the stories compelling, and was more reluctant to put it down.  Although the characters do in some instances err towards caricature, they are lively and entertaining, and the more important characters are shown in far more depth than those who serve mostly to propel the story forward a little.  My biggest disappointment was the expedition’s botanist, Renshaw, who really remained quite an indistinct blur throughout.  It is definitely the characters who carry the story, but the historical detail, especially of life in the penal colonies, as it is revealed is well-drawn.  I was able to visualise everything quite clearly, and it is quite shocking when the depth and consequences of the colonial blinkered vision is revealed.  The story is easy to read with many scenes of ‘light relief’ to counter the dark themes but I think overall the balance is just right, and the overriding sadness of the circumstances is not compromised.

 “I sat outside, watching river and sun going lower, hungry for some quiet thing, but no, it never came, as what-they-did-to-mother was sitting just beside, so I hardly could perceive any river there.  When it got cold, and biting insects hummed, I went inside, but  what-they-did-to-mother got in faster.  It was still there when I went to sleep, and in the middle of the night, when all was quiet except for mouses  scuffling, suddenly it woke me up and said HERE I AM, as if it was new again.”

If the story straggles a little once the  English Passengers finally combine with Peevay for the expedition portion of the book (very small in comparison to the journey!), and becomes a little farcical as the ship travels home, Kneale succeeds in drawing everything back into line for a satisfying conclusion.  Very enjoyable!

FOLLOWING ON:  Remembering Babylon by David Malouf and Tommo & Hawk by Bryce Courtenay also look at different aspects of life in and around the penal colonies of early Australia.  The more comical aspects (eg Rev Wilson’s pomposity) were reminiscent of chaplain Mr Kidney in Tom Gilling’s The Sooterkin, which is set in Tasmania of the same period.

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