Friday, January 9, 2009

The Lieutenant and The Secret River

Kate Grenville's new book, The Lieutenant, traces the life of Daniel Rooke, a lieutenant in the marines posted to New South Wales in 1788. The young Daniel was selected to study at the Portsmouth Naval Academy where he was introduced to astronomy. Not being able to afford a commission in the navy he joined the marines as a navigator and was then sent to the new colony of New South Wales as an astronomer. Isolated by choice from the main settlement he studied not only the stars but also the surrounding environment and particularly the Aborigines who visited his camp. Interested in languages he made it his project to learn to communicate with his visitors, especially a young girl, Tagaran. Always an outsider, Daniel Rooke discovered difficulties in reconciling his observations and understandings of his new environment and its people with the strict demands of discipline and obeying of orders expected of a marine.

The book is inspired by the notebooks of William Dawes where he wrote of his experiences in the new colony. This is however a work of fiction and although the novel is obviously set in New South Wales the names of the characters in the book are fictitious.

In 2005 Kate Grenville published another book set in convict times, The secret river. The novel traces the life of William Thornhill and his family. William is a waterman on the Thames but changing circumstances make him take chances to help support his family and result in his transportation to New South Wales. His wife and children are allowed to also travel on the ship and on arrival in New South Wales he was assigned to his wife, Sal. Together they established a new life in the colony facing the challenges of living in land very different from England, strange flora and fauna, making a life from nothing. William's skills on the water help him earn a living and eventually the family faces the challenge of establishing their own settlement on the river. The relationship between the Aborigines and the new settlers is interwoven throughout the story providing a variety of viewpoints as Will and his family strive to make a life in a new land. The secret river is a work of fiction but it provides insights into what life was possibly like for the settlers in New South Wales early in the nineteenth century.

Searching for the secret river examines the five years of research undertaken before writing the book. Originally the author was exploring her family history with no intention of writing a book but as the research continued she realised that she had discovered a wealth of material in which to set a novel. The end result was The secret river.

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