The Lieutenant – By Kate Grenville – book review

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I read The Secret River (also by Kate Grenville) a couple of years ago and enjoyed it but didn’t think it was amazing. However, Kate Grenville has really found her voice with this new novel, The Lieutenant.

The author was beguiled by the story of a lieutenant who travelled on the first ship taking convicts to New South Wales in 1788, William Dawes. This novel is her tribute to this remarkable man.

The book is a subtle account based on real historical events. It is melancholy but never becomes maudlin. It is a sensitive portrayal of the brutality of the colonists who first established a settlement in New South Wales seen through the eyes of a person caught up in the machinery of empire. As the book progresses, the central figure of Daniel Rooke (the lieutenant) slowly becomes aware of his part in the evil of colonialism and a realisation of the richness of the culture of the native people they encounter.

It is a wonderful account of a brutal age, causing me to reflect on the naivety and arrogance of those first settlers.

Daniel Rooke is a well-rounded character, a loner who, if he lived today, would be described as having asperger’s. The fact that he struggles to deal with social situations but has an insatiable desire for knowledge means that his eyes become the reader’s eyes, a stranger both in his own society and in Australia. This is a master-stroke of the author’s, as the reader makes the same journey as the lieutenant.

One of the best books I have read about the colonial age, not so much an apology for the atrocities committed as an acknowledgement of what happened and a tribute to the aborigine people and those westerners who fought for the abolition of slavery.

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