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Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Grove Press

The Lieutenant

by Kate Grenville

“[A] richly imagined portrait of a deeply introspective, and quite remarkable, man.” —Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date September 14, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4503-1
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.95
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date September 08, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-1916-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $24.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date September 02, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9768-9
  • US List Price $14.95

About The Book

Winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant—a stunning follow-up to her Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning book, The Secret River—is a gripping story about friendship, self-discovery, and the power of language along the unspoiled shores of 1788 New South Wales.

As a boy, Daniel Rooke was always an outsider. Ridiculed in school and misunderstood by his parents, Daniel could only hope, against all the evidence, that he would one day find his place in life. When he enters the marines and travels to Australia as a lieutenant on the First Fleet, Daniel finally sees his chance for a new beginning.

As his countrymen struggle to control their cargo of convicts and communicate with those who already inhabit the land, Daniel immediately constructs an observatory to chart the stars and begin the scientific work he prays will make him famous. But the place where they have landed will prove far more revelatory than the night sky. Out on his isolated point, Daniel comes to intimately know the local Aborigines, and forges a remarkable connection with one young girl, Tagaran, that will forever change the course of his life. As the strained coexistence between the Englishmen and the native tribes collapses into violence, Daniel is forced to decide between dedication to his work, allegiance to his country, and his protective devotion to Tagaran and her people.

Inspired by the notebooks of astronomer William Dawes, The Lieutenant is a remarkable story about the poignancy and emotional power of a friendship that defies linguistic and cultural barriers, and shows one ordinary man that he is capable of exceptional courage.

Tags Literary

Praise

“Vivid . . . Delightful . . . Grenville’s storytelling shines: the backdrop is lush and Daniel is a wonderful creation—a conflicted, curious and endearing eccentric.” —Publishers Weekly

“Grenville displays a graceful touch with the characters and the history that so clearly move her, and her writing sparkles with life. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“[A] richly imagined portrait of a deeply introspective, and quite remarkable, man.” —Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review

“A prescriptive plea for cultural understanding [that] draws revelatory connections between emotional empathy and scientific discovery. . . . The crisp prose of The Lieutenant [often] approaches poetry . . . [and] compels as a historical novel exploring the sins of Australia’s colonial past, an admirable testament to the necessity that the West learn to appreciate rather than condemn the Other. But Grenville’s most thrilling achievement is to filter that lesson in social acceptance through the computational consciousness of a man whose head is in the stars.” —Bill Marx, Los Angeles Times

“Exquisite . . . Grenville has created a magnificent work of fiction that encompasses the excitement of adventure, the thrill of discovery, the mysteries of the unknown, the ambiguity of relationships and the ethical and moral dilemma of choosing between duty to country or to mankind.” —Corinna Lothar, The Washington Times

“Grenville’s portrait of the obtuse yet engaging Rooke and her descriptions of this strange territory are marvelously evocative. . . . The fragility of the encounters [between Rooke and Tagaran] further heightens the suspense that Grenville so deftly sustains. Tragedy looms, of course, just outside the delicate frame of this elegiac novel, but Grenville allows us to marvel at ‘one universe in the act of encountering another’ even as we dread the inevitable result.” —Anna Mundow, The Boston Globe

“What differentiates The Lieutenant from The Secret River is a surprising and refreshing theme of belonging and connectivity. Present are Grenville’s consistent abilities to understand and re-birth history into a contextual narrative, but here those skills coalesce into an overarching message: ‘Everything is part of every other thing, now and forever.’ . . . . Understanding and meaning [can be] found far from anything we could have imagined. The Lieutenant is a great read that reminds us the finding is possible.” —Michelle AuBuchon, The Brooklyn Rail

“Grenville follows The Secret River with another lyrical and literary exploration of the history of Australia. . . . Loosely based on historical facts, this novel of discovery is about much more than exploring new lands. It is about one man’s personal voyage into the heart of a people.” —Mary Ellen Quinn, Booklist

“I’m a shamefully late, and enraptured, discoverer of Kate Grenville, whose The Lieutenant is a supremely good novel. . . . [It] has excited me more than any novel I’ve read since those of W. G. Sebald.” —Diana Athill, author of Somewhere Toward the End

“Grenville perfectly conveys the complexities of learning a language that is utterly different in sound, syntax, and concept from every other language one knows. . . . In the writing of this novel, [Grenville] has demonstrated both rigor and courage. . . . [The Lieutenant] raising the moral issues of [The Secret River] to a new level of consideration.” —Margaret Black, Metroland

“[The Lieutenant] glows with life: imaginative in its re-creations, respectful of what cannot be imagined, and thoughtful in its interrogation of the past. . . . Grenville’s most intellectually sophisticated novel to date.” —Kerryn Goldsworthy, The Age (Australia)

“[The Lieutenant] has a potency and beauty that lingers in both the heart and mind’s eye. . . . Rooke and Tagaran are superbly written, and Grenville conveys not only the sense of true kinship that grows between them, but also the euphoria of connection and understanding between two people from different universes. [The Lieutenant] visits a part of Australian black-white history and finds a true heart of goodness there.” —Lucy Clark, The Sunday Telegraph (Australia)

“Grenville inhabits characters with a rare completeness . . . and writes with a poet’s sense of rhythm and imagery. . . . [She] explores the natural rifts that arise between settlers and native people with a deep understanding of the ambiguities inherent in such conflicts . . . [and] occupies the mind of Rooke with a kind of vivid insistence, and his isolation—and moral dilemmas—become ours.” —Jay Parini, The Guardian (UK)

“Masterful . . . Grenville’s easy writing leads us gently toward the inevitable cultural collision, building subtle tension as the playing field becomes more and more uneven. And woven throughout this fictionalized history is a moving and compassionate glimpse into the proud intelligence of the Aboriginal tribes in that moment of hesitation before good intentions are swept aside in the name of queen and country.” —Judith Meyrick, The Chronicle Herald

“Grenville has fashioned an original, inviting tale that makes her country’s colonial history as fresh as it is to her wide-eyed protagonist in 1788. . . . Grenville’s prose is clear and clean . . . [with] an innocence to the voice that is almost reminiscent of a fairytale and its purposeful naivety well suits the point of view of a curious but inexperienced hero. . . . Basing her tale on real events and a real historical character, Grenville has brought imagination and compassion to the source of so much of Australia’s retroactive hand-wringing. What distinguishes her portrayal of the Aboriginal culture is that for once appreciation, sympathy, and admiration get the better of impotent guilt.” —Lionel Shriver, The Telegraph (UK)

“A particular kind of stillness marks out Grenville’s characters as uniquely hers. . . . The relationship between the awkward soldier, in his red coat and brass buttons, and the young naked girl, is a beautifully uplifting piece of fiction. Nimbly avoiding categorizations of filial, fraternal or sexual love, their sharing of language and then understanding simply describes the love that one human being finally finds for another. . . . Between the words and among them, this is a profoundly uplifting novel—one that leaves you understanding Rooke’s premise: that ‘Truth [needs] hundreds of words, or none.’” —Katy Guest, The Independent (UK)

“The encounters between Rooke and the Gadigal, especially a young girl called Tagaran, are wonderfully shimmering and authentic . . . gripping, I couldn’t put it down.” —Weekend Herald (New Zealand)

“An extraordinary adventure into the nature of language, culture and human communication. It is also a thrilling alternative history of modern Australia’s beginnings. . . . Grenville’s great victory in this book is to show us that language is so much more than vocabulary or even grammar and syntax . . . Grenville’s writing is so clear as to be transparent . . . All in all, an epiphanous book, her best, I think.” —Listener

“An intelligent, spare, always engrossing imagining of first contact, in which the fictionalization of history allows a comment about current postcolonial race relationships which escapes the didacticism of special pleading.” —Patrick Denman Flanery, Times Literary Supplement

“In lucid prose and perfectly measured strides, Grenville lays down her riveting tale.” —Stephanie Cross, The Daily Mail

“Genuinely affecting, [The Lieutenant] is another capable tranche of character-based, historical fiction and a worthy foil to its predecessor.” —Melissa McClements, Financial Times

“Rooke and Tagaran . . . develop together the first stumbling vocabulary and grammar of an indigenous Australian language for English speakers. . . . This exploration project, undertaken marvelously as a language adventure, is an Australian fiction delight. . . . Grenville hasn’t written a historical novel. She has written astutely about dark hearts today.” —Nigel Krauth, Australian

“[Grenville’s] reflections on the relationship of language to life, perspective to meaning, literature to truth all sprout from the seeds of historical record and twine enticingly throughout the novel.” —Katharine England, Adelaide Advertiser

“[With The Lieutenant] Grenville achieves what few Australian writers have accomplished: a convincing paean to Australia’s seductiveness. . . . Character is one of [Grenville’s] strong suits, and this vision of a budding relationship between the sparkling Aboriginal girl and the sensitive young man of science is a triumph of imaginative history. Grenville’s book has a point of view, to be sure, but it also has a sense of humor—and its power, like that of all great novels, derives from the author’s deep and abiding affection for all concerned.” —Christina Thompson, The Monthly (Australia)

“From one of [Australia’s] most accomplished novelists, [The Lieutenant] a universal story of the great and joyous gravity of decent human interaction, of finding then unlocking your soul. It is also a platonic love story that is profoundly moving. . . . This is a book about the power of language—what we say and don’t say.” —Matthew Condon. Courier-Mail (Australia)

“A compelling and beautifully written book—everything readers have come to expect from Kate Grenville.” —South Coast Register

Awards

One of More magazine’s Fall Books We’re Buzzing About
Barnes & Noble Review Best Historical Fiction of the Year
An Indie Next List Notable selection (September 2009)
Winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Daniel Rooke was quiet, moody, a man of few words. He had no memories other than of being an outsider.

At the dame school in Portsmouth they thought him stupid. His first day there was by coincidence his fifth birthday, the third of March 1767. He took his place behind the desk with his mother’s breakfast oatmeal cosy in his stomach and his new jacket on, happy to be joining the world beyond his home.

Mrs Bartholomew showed him a badly executed engraving with the word “cat” underneath. His mother had taught him his letters and he had been reading for a year. He could not work out what Mrs Bartholomew wanted. He sat at his desk, mouth open.

That was the first time he was paddled with Mrs. Bartholomew’s old hairbrush for failing to respond to a question so simple he had not thought to answer it.

He could not become interested in the multiplication tables.

While the others chanted through them, impatient for the morning break, he was looking under the desk at the notebook in which he was collecting his special numbers, the ones that could not be divided by any number but themselves and one. Like him, they were solitaries.

When Mrs Bartholomew pounced on him one day and seized the notebook, he was afraid she would throw it in the fire and smack him with the hairbrush again. She looked at it for a long time and put it away in her pinny pocket.

He wanted to ask for it back. Not for the numbers, they were in his head, but for the notebook, too precious to lose.

Then Dr Adair from the Academy came to the house in Church Street. Rooke could not guess who Dr Adair was, or what he was doing in their parlour. He only knew that he had been washed and combed for a visitor, that his infant sisters had been sent next door to the neighbour woman, and that his mother and father were sitting on the uncomfortable chairs in the corner with rigid faces.

Dr Adair leaned forward. Did Master Rooke know of numbers that could be divided by nothing but themselves and one? Rooke forgot to be in awe. He ran up to his attic room and came back with the grid he had drawn, ten by ten, the first hundred numbers with these special ones done in red ink: two, three, five and on to ninety-seven. He pointed, there was a kind of pattern, do you see, here and here? But one hundred numbers was not enough, he needed a bigger sheet of paper so he could make a square twenty or even thirty a side, and then he could find the true pattern, and perhaps Dr Adair might be able to provide him with such a sheet?

His father by now had the rictus of a smile that meant his son was exposing his oddness to a stranger, and his mother was looking down into her lap. Rooke folded the grid and hid it under his hand on the table.

But Dr Adair lifted his fingers from the grubby paper.

“May I borrow this?” he asked. “I would like, if I may, to show it to a gentleman of my acquaintance who will be interested that it was created by a boy of seven.”

>After Dr Adair went, the neighbour woman brought his sisters back. She inspected Rooke and said loudly, as if he were deaf, or a dog, “Yes, he looks clever, don’t he?”

Rooke felt the hairs on his head standing up with the heat of his blush. Whether it was because he was stupid or clever, it added up to the same thing: the misery of being out of step with the world. When he turned eight Dr Adair offered the bursary. It was just words: a place at the Portsmouth Naval Academy. The boy thought it could not be too different from the life he knew, went along blithely and hardly waved goodbye to his father at the gate.

The first night there he lay rigid in the dark, too shocked to cry.

The other boys established that his father was a clerk who went every day to the squat stone building near the docks where the Office of Ordnance ran its affairs. In the world of Church Street, Benjamin Rooke was a man of education and standing, a father to be proud of. At the Portsmouth Naval Academy a mile away, he was an embarrassment. A clerk! Oh dearie me!

A boy took everything out of his trunk, the shirts and underthings his mother and grandmother had so carefully made, and hurled them through the window into the muddy yard three flights below. A man in a billowing black gown caught Rooke painfully by the ear and hit him with a cane when he tried to say that he had not done it. A big boy sat him up on a high wall out behind the kitchens and poked him with a stick until he was forced to jump down.

His ankle still hurt from the fall, but that was not the pain at his heart.

His attic in Church Street wrapped its corners and angles around him, the shape of his own odd self. At the Academy, the cold space of the bleak dormitory sucked out his spirit and left a shell behind.

Walking from the Academy back to Church Street every Saturday evening to spend Sunday at home was a journey between one world and another that wrenched him out of shape each time. His mother and father were so proud, so warm with pleasure that their clever son had been singled out, that he could not tell them how he felt. His grandmother might have understood, but he could not find the words to tell even her how he had lost himself.

When it came time for him to walk back, Anne held his hand with both hers, pulling at him with all her child’s weight and crying for him to stay. She was not yet five, but somehow knew that he longed to remain anchored in the hallway. His father peeled her fingers away one by one and shooed him out the door, waving and smiling, so that Rooke had to wave too and put a grin on his face. All the way up the street he could hear Anne wailing, and his nan trying to comfort her.

Many great men had received their educations at the Academy, but no one there was excited by the numbers he learned to call primes. Nor were they interested when he showed them the notebook where he was trying to work the square root of two, or how you could play with pi and arrive at surprising results.

Rooke learned at last that true cleverness was to hide such thoughts. They became a kind of shame, a secret thing to be indulged only in private.

Conversation was a problem he could not solve. If no answer seemed necessary to a remark, he said nothing. Before he learned, he had unwittingly rebuffed several overtures.

Then it was too late.

At other times he talked too much. In response to some remark about the weather, he might wax enthusiastic about the distribution of rainfall in Portsmouth. He would share the fact that he had been keeping a record of it, that he had a jar on the windowsill on which he had scratched calibrations, of course when he was home on Sundays he took the jar with him, but the windowsill there was somewhat more exposed to the prevailing south-westerly wind than the one at the Academy and therefore got more rain. By this time whoever had commented on it being a fine day was sidling away.

He yearned to be a more ordinary sort of good fellow, but was helpless to be other than he was.

He came to hate the boastful cupola on the roof of the Academy, its proud golden globe, hated the white stone corners that hemmed in the bricks of the facade. The portico of the main doorway seemed too narrow for its grandiose columns and its miniature pediment, the door tiny in the middle like a face with eyes too close together.

Reluctantly approaching the place after a Sunday at home, still feeling Anne’s hands pulling at him, Rooke would look up at the second floor where the rich boys had their rooms. If the curtains were open on the left-hand window, it meant that Lancelot Percival James, the son of the Earl of Bedwick, was in. A plump booming slow-witted boy, he had no time for a schoolfellow whose father was nothing more than a clerk and whose home did not have proper servants, only a maidof- all-work. Even boys who fawned on Lancelot Percival were tired of hearing about his butler, his cook, his many maids and footmen, not to mention the sundry grooms and gardeners who took care of the estate, and the gamekeeper who protected the earl’s pheasants from those who might try to help themselves.

Lancelot Percival lay in wait for Rooke and usually managed to give him a punch in passing, or spill ink on his precious linen shirt. The other boys watched without expression, as if it were normal, like killing a fly.

Lancelot Percival James’s illustrious line was based on the sugar trade, and behind that on the islands of Jamaica and Antigua, and finally on the black slaves on those islands. Lancelot Percival did not understand why the square on the hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, but he became eloquent on why the British Empire in general, and his own illustrious family in particular, would collapse if slavery were abolished.

Rooke puzzled about that idea as he puzzled at his primes. He had never seen a black man, so the issue was abstract, but something about the argument did not cohere. Think as he might, though, he could not find a path around Lancelot Percival’s logic.

In any case, it was best to keep out of Lancelot Percival’s way.

When he could, he slipped down to the water’s edge at the mouth of the harbour where the Round Tower looked out to sea. There was a shingle beach at the foot of the ancient masonry where no one ever came. Its emptiness matched his own, a companion of sorts.

He had a secret slot in the wall where he kept his collection of pebbles. They were all ordinary, each valuable only for being different from the others. He whispered to himself as he crouched over them, pointing out their qualities. Look at how this one has little dark specks in it! And do you see how that one is like the surface of the moon?

He became his own question and his own answer.

At the Academy his only consolations were found within the pages of books. Euclid seemed an old friend. Things that equal the same thing also equal one another. The whole is greater than the part. In Euclid’s company it was as if he had been speaking a foreign language all his life, and had just now heard someone else speaking it too.

He pored over Lily’s Grammar of the Latin Tongue, loved the way the slippery mysteries of language could be reduced to units as reliable and interchangeable as numbers. Dico, dicis, dicet. Dative, genitive, ablative. He came to feel that Greek and Latin, French and German were not so much ways of speaking as machines for thinking.

Most of all, the heavens were transformed by the Academy’s instruction in astronomy and navigation. It was a revelation to learn that the stars were not whimsical points of light, but part of a shape so gigantic it made Rooke dizzy. There was a crosseyed feeling, standing on the earth and at the same time watching it from somewhere beyond. From that vantage point it was not rooms, fields, streets, but a ball of matter hurtling through space on an orbit the exact shape of which had been intuited by a German called Mr Kepler and proved by an Englishman called Mr Newton, who had a bridge named after him in Cambridge.

Rooke spent fruitless hours wishing that Euclid or Kepler were still alive to converse with him. The world they described was an orderly one in which everything had a place. Even, perhaps, a boy who seemed to have no place.

When the chaplain discovered that he had perfect pitch, it seemed another curse.

“C sharp!” he cried, and Rooke listened inside himself somewhere and sang a note. The chaplain jabbed at the piano.

“B flat, Rooke, can you give me B flat?”

Rooke listened, and sang, and the man turned to him on the piano stool, so flushed that for a shocked moment Rooke thought that he was going to kiss him. Behind him in the choir stalls his classmates snickered, and Rooke knew he would pay later.

But as soon as his legs were long enough the chaplain taught him to play the organ in the chapel. A door opened in a world that had seemed nothing but wall. Rooke loved the logic of the notation, the way the fundamental unit of the breve could be broken into smaller and smaller pieces. Even the quickest hemi-demi-semi-quaver was part of that original breve, the sonority unheard but underlying and giving meaning to every note.

Then there was the machine itself. An organ was nothing more than dozens of tubes of air. Every pipe had just one note to sing, was incapable of any other: one pipe, one note. Each stood in its place alongside the others, its metal mouth open, full of air waiting to be moved. Sitting at the keyboard twenty yards away at the other end of the chapel, Rooke would play a chord and listen as each pipe sang out its note. He almost wept with gratitude that the world could offer such a glory of sound.

He sat in the chapel for hours picking his way through fugues. A dozen notes, hardly music. But then those few notes spoke to each other, subject and answer, by repetition, by diminution, by augmentation, even looping backwards on themselves in a course like the retrograde motion of Mars. He listened as if he had as many ears as fingertips, and, like a blind man, could feel textures that were barely there. At the end of two or three pages of music he would hear all the voices twining together in a construction of such dizzying power that the walls of the chapel could barely contain it.

Others, tiring of the sound of Buxtehude and Bach for hours on end, would complain there was no tune. That was exactly the thing he liked best about a fugue, the fact that it could not be sung. A fugue was not singular, as a melody was, but plural. It was a conversation.

On the organ bench he sat through hundreds of sermons, his back to the crowded pews, and he mumbled the morsels of bread and sipped from the chalice with the others. But the God of sin and retribution, of the mysteries of suffering and resurrection, did not speak to him.

He had no argument with God, but for him God was not in those words or those rituals. He had seen God in the night sky long before he understood its patterns. There was something about the way the body of the stars moved together as one that he had always found miraculous and comforting.

On the long winter evenings Rooke would slip outside, past the kitchens, and stand in the yard looking up. In the cold the constellations were close and brilliant. He was comforted by the way you could always find the Charioteer and the Little Bear circling the sky together. Each sparkle did not need to find its way across the darkness alone but moved together with its fellows, held fast in its place by some mighty hand.

That the moon was sometimes a sliver and sometimes a plate had seemed when he was a child to be a sly trick. But when he understood the reason, he was awed. There was a pattern, but he had been looking for it on the wrong scale. A week was not enough to see it, a month was needed.

He hoped that all understanding might be as simple as a matter of scale. If a man had not a week, not a year, not even a lifetime—if he had millennia, aeons—all the seemingly erratic movements of heavenly bodies and earthly vicissitudes would turn out to have meaning. Some kinds of order were too vast for a human to know. But below the chaos of a single human life, you could trust that a cosmic breve was sounding.

As the chaplain had his Gospels, Rooke had his own sacred text in which his God made Himself plain: mathematics. Man had been given a brain that could think in numbers, and it could not be coincidence that the world was unlocked by that very tool. To understand any aspect of the cosmos was to look on the face of God: not directly, but by a species of triangulation, because to think mathematically was to feel the action of God in oneself.

He saw others comforted by their ideas of God: as a stern but kindly father, or a brother sharing a burden. What comforted Rooke, on the contrary, was the knowledge that as an individual he did not matter. Whatever he was, he was part of a whole, one insignificant note within the great fugue of being.

That imposed a morality beyond the terse handful of commands in the chaplain’s book. It was to acknowledge the unity of all things. To injure any was to damage all.

He dreamed of leaving the place, not just the Academy but Portsmouth, closed in on itself, squeezed tightly around the harbour, those narrow streets where everyone knew him too well, Benjamin Rooke’s eldest, a good enough lad but a little fey. He had no evidence, but doggedly believed that there would one day be a place, somewhere in the world, for the person he was.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide by Lindsey Tate

1. The novel begins with Daniel Rooke’s childhood during which he is keenly aware of the “misery of being out of step with the world” (p. 5). Talk about your impressions of Rooke as a young boy, finding instances of his experiences as an outsider, and consider how his childhood prepares him for the life ahead of him.

2. Author Kate Grenville writes with a poet’s sensibility, especially apparent in her evocative descriptions of setting throughout the novel. How does the ocean town of Portsmouth, England, with its shingle shore and soft rain shape the young Rooke? Is it a place that symbolizes for him a certain time and mind-set? Why do you think he rarely returns there?

3. “Rooke had his own sacred text in which his God made Himself plain: mathematics . . . because to think mathematically was to feel the action of God in oneself” (p. 14). Why does the young Rooke feel so secure in this worldview? Consider again his early years up until his first experiences as a soldier and find evidence that supports his theory, as well as evidence against it.

4. Continue your discussion by talking about the machinery of the army and life in His Majesty’s service, a life that appeals to Rooke with its rituals, brass sextant, and days and nights spent beneath the open skies. What is it that makes him finally question this life? Is it possible to be a part of this machine, and still be human? Does Rooke fully understand the implications of this loss of freedom in the name of duty?

5. The Lieutenant was inspired by historical events, specifically by the life of William Dawes, a scholar-soldier who sailed from England in 1788 with the so-called First Fleet to transport British prisoners to New South Wales and to set up a colony there. What are your thoughts on using historical fact in a fictional story? How accurate can the history be when filtered through an author’s contemporary perspective? Does it undermine the events in any way? In reference to her last book, The Secret River (another novel about Australian colonial history), Grenville explained that her aim was to make her book “more true than real.” Discuss.

6. In the light of these two quotes, talk about the role of fate in the novel. “He was willing to accept that this was the orbit his life was intended to follow,” (p. 41) and “New South Wales was part of a man’s destiny” (p. 66). Would you agree that Rooke is more passive than active in following his destiny, certainly in the first part of the novel? What does he want from his life when he signs up for the journey to New South Wales? How far does he attain this? Does he have any particular aspirations for the future or is he too limited to see that far ahead?

7. What does Rooke’s father mean by “Begin as you mean to go on” (p. 45)? How does Rooke apply it to his own life?

8. Discuss the importance of Rooke’s sister, Anne, in the novel. She is described as “clever enough to recognise the limits of what she understood” (p. 40). Why does Rooke consider such self-knowledge to be a gift? Would his own life have been significantly different if he had been less sure of his own intellect? Analyze the ways in which Rooke’s odd intelligence hinders him.

9. Explore the theme of astronomy throughout the novel and consider the reasons that it appeals to Rooke. Chart his dependence on his beloved stars as his human relationships develop, and discuss his fading interest in the appearance of the comet that was his prime reason for traveling to New South Wales. How does his love of astronomy prepare him for his dealings with the new land and people of New South Wales?

10. In many ways Talbot Silk is a foil to his unlikely friend Rooke. Compare and contrast their characters throughout the novel, especially looking into their different perceptions of reality. Talk about Silk’s need to embroider the truth, and Rooke’s desire to pare it down to its bare essentials. How far do you think they succeed in finding the truth, or at least the truth that they want to perceive? What do their approaches to life and the world say about their personalities? Does Silk’s character change or grow during his time in New South Wales?

11. Continuing this discussion, talk about the way in which Rooke deals with his arrival in New South Wales. Why does he need to quantify everything, plotting and recording the wind, weather, barometer, and thermometer? Is it a matter of carrying out his job or is this the only way he can connect with the world? How successful is he?

12. Discuss the theme of reinvention of self as it occurs throughout the novel. As Rooke moves from one place to another he constantly puts on a new face, trying to become a different person. How far is it possible to reinvent oneself, or is it more a shifting of character, a revealing of new facets? Consider Rooke’s thoughts on moving into his observatory in New South Wales: “Out here, with his thoughts his only company, he could become nothing more or less than the person he was. Himself. It was as unexplored a land as this one” (p. 78). How aware is he of the uncharted depths of his own character?

13. As Rooke begins his tentative relationship with the Aborigines he opens himself up to a new culture, a new universe, and discovers a different self that lies within. What is it about this new country and these new people that enables Rooke to grow as a human? And what is it about his old self—compared to Silk, for example—that enables the Aborigines to be freer with him? Talk about the difference between the person the Aborigines refer to as “kamara” and the soldier Lieutenant Daniel Rooke.

14. As Rooke and the young girl Tagaran exchange words and sentences what does Rooke discover about the nature of language? How far is he correct in his early assessment of language? “But language was more than a list of words, more than a collection of fragments all jumbled together like a box of nuts and bolts . . . it required someone who could dismantle the machine, see how it worked, and put it to use: a man of system, a man of science” (p. 152). Consider his later statement: “What had passed between Tagaran and himself had gone far beyond vocabulary or grammatical forms. It was the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground” (p. 186). What has happened to make Rooke understand language as something organic, as a way of mapping a relationship?

15. Talk about the friendship between Tagaran and Rooke. Were you able to accept it as completely platonic, or were you aware of sexual undertones? How old do you think Tagaran is as it isn’t specifically stated in the novel? After refusing to shoot his gun to satisfy Tagaran’s curiosity, Rooke is overcome by doubt and suspicion and believes that Tagaran has been using him for information. What were your feelings about this?

16. As Rooke wrestles with doubts about Tagaran and the true nature of their friendship, his whole worldview changes. Everything that he has held to be sacrosanct about the reliability of science is now put into question. Talk about the importance of “the language of doubt, the language that was prepared to admit I am not sure” (p. 233). Why is it such a huge emotional step for Rooke to accept this?

17. Since his arrival in New South Wales Rooke has realized that “a man could not travel along two different paths” (p. 218). Analyze some of the ways in which he has attempted to distance himself from his duties as a soldier. Has he ever truly believed that he could continue in this role forever? Find instances of his increasing inability to stay true to both sides, the army and the Aborigines. At what point does his attempt become naive, even ludicrous?

18. How far would you agree that the events of Rooke’s life have been slowly moving toward his epiphany on the Botany Bay beach: “If an action was wrong, it did not matter whether it succeeded or not, or how many clever steps you took to make sure it failed. If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong . . . If you were part of that machine, you were part of its evil” (p. 280). Consider how much he has changed since he realized, years earlier in Antigua, that “His Majesty had no use for any of the thoughts and sensibilities and wishes that a man might contain, much less the disobedience to which he might be inspired” (p. 29). With whom does his duty lie now?

19. Trace Rooke’s emotional and moral development throughout the course of the novel ending with his death bed in Antigua. Talk about how far the lonely little boy from Portsmouth has come. Do you believe he finally found “a place, somewhere in the world, for the person he was” (p. 15)?

Further Reading:

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin; The Sea by John Banville,; Rabbit-proof Fence by Doris Pilkington; Cloudstreet by Tim Winton; Remembering Babylon by David Malouf; The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding by Robert Hughes; The Tree of Man by Patrick White; The Secret River by Kate Grenville