Posted by: billpurdue | March 12, 2012

All at sea

Apart from the two Adrian Mole novels by Sue Townsend which I read recently, it seems a long time since I came a cross a really good read. All that changed when I started reading Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers [Penguin £8.99 9780140285215] which was quite an epic, but a very worthwhile read.

ImageIt is the middle of the nineteenth century and the very pious Revd. Geoffrey Wilson leads an expedition to look for the site of the Garden of Eden, which he believes to be somewhere in Tasmania (or Van Diemens Land). Accompanying him are a Dr Potter, anxious to prove his theory of the unassailable superiority of the Saxon race and the inferiority of the Tasmanian aborigine, and a rather disinterested Timothy Renshaw. The ship they charter is owned and crewed by Manxmen, who are not averse to a spot of smuggling and very distrustful of all Englishmen. At almost every port of call the captain and his crew have problmes trying to offload the contraband hidden on the ship 

Van Diemens Land at that time was a place of penal colonies and camps where aboriginal folk were confined and subjected to a regime which was intended to “civilise” them and make them just like English villagers – or so the settlers thought. The story alternates between the account of the voyage and an account of what has been happening to the deported criminals and the aborigines in the previous two decades.

What is different about the book is that it is narrated by a wide range of people; the Revd. Wilson, Captain Kewley of the ship the Sincerity, Dr Potter, Peevay, one of the aborigines, Jack Harp, a Tasmanian settler and many more characters. Each narrator has his or her own style of writing: Revd. Wilson’s flowery language contrasts with Peevay’s awkward English and Dr Potter’s diary notes. It all makes for very interesting and varied reading. There’s some humour as well as some poignant moments.

At first it didn’t seem like a good page turner, but the further I got , the more I was hooked. Would the explorers and the crew of the Sincerity ever reach Tasmania? Will there be any aborigines left after they are herded into camps (the “lucky” ones that don’t get shot that is) and proceed to die of diseases brought from other parts of the world? And, if they do get to Tasmania, are the explorers properly equipped to trudge through the rainforest? The further I read, the more gripping it became and the outcome was quite unexpected.

Highly recommended – and by the way, this book won the Whitbread Prize in 2001 (now known as the Costa Book Awards).

Seafarers of a different kind 

ImageI mentioned the BBC2 series “My Life in Books” last time. The series has just finished, but there’s one more book I want to mention. Chris Addison read an extract from The Pirates! In and adventure with Scientists[ Bloomsbury £6.99 978-1408824955] by Gideon Defoe. It was four years ago in only the third posting of this blog (April 2008) when I last mentioned the The Pirates! Series, . Since then I had almost forgotten about them, but I’m glad I was reminded. Their adventures are quite bizarre, but they are extremely funny – well that’s my opinion. Why not try one of the books for yourself?


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