The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

The Lieutenant The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River was shortlisted for the Booker in 2006, but I haven’t yet read it. The Lieutenant is my first encounter with Grenville’s work. That’s because I’m wary of historical fiction. However, after Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall I’ve become more accepting of this genre, especially when it sometimes meld over with literature, the hard or real stuff.

When I found this book in the National Library I decided to give a go, even though when flipping through, to quickly review it by sight, I found the font to be childishly large. The size of the print is equivalent to what you find in specially produced large-print books, particularly targeted at older readers who might have trouble reading the normal smaller print.

As of the style of the writing, you cannot subsume it with that of other bestseller-type of historical fiction that most women love to read. Those books usually weigh a ton if in hardback. This one is just over 300 pages. With the large size of the font, you can easily finish reading it in a very short time. Also, the number of pages would be half of 300 odd if the font is done up smaller.

Another factor to the length is the way Grenville never deluges the reader with lengthy details about some historical event or scene, no verbosity at all. She paints with a lightest of strokes, and lays down just a few details about a scene, sufficient for the reader to imagine the whole, even if he has never seen an Australian bush in his life. This way, she gets on with the story.

And the story is about a genius, born in the 18th century, in England. Then little geniuses who could perform arithmetic wonders got sent to the military schools, the best of schools then. How little clever than average Daniel Rooke suffered in such an establishment. Fortunately he got noticed for his uniqueness, especially for his predilection for astronomy. When he got out of this school, he, inevitably, joined the navy, and sailed to Australia. He and his ship mates landed in New South Wales.

There he managed to persuade his superiors to allow him to set up a makeshift observatory. This set him apart, as much as his intelligence did, from his other colleagues. They had to contend with dwindling supplies of food, and having to communicate with the natives there, the aborigines. While they were making attempts at learning some smidgen of the native language, Rooke was ensconced in his little observatory, lost to everything around him except the stars in the sky. Until, that is, when a group of aboriginal women and children came into his environment.

This started a unique relationship, of wonder and respect, between the aborigines and Rooke, especially with a little girl Tagaran. Whenever she visited Rooke would attempt conversations with her using her language. He would note down what Tagaran would teach him. In the process they forged a unique friendship. But this would be tested when Rooke had to join in an exercise to capture six natives, as revenge for their killing one of navy’s one.

Of course, it would be telling too much, especially the ending, if I proceed to reveal the outcome of this. Safe to say, The Lieutenant is a well worth my attempt at getting a first taste of Grenville’s works.

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