Reading Down Under

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

The English passengers is a novel by English writer Matthew Kneale about an English Voyage to Tasmania, in the hope of finding the Garden of Eden. The voyage is lead by the godly (and insufferable) Reverend Geoffry Wilson but their captain (mr Illiam Quillian Kewely) is using the voyage for his own smuggling ends. The who expedition is filled with characters sporting spectacular character flaws and the narrative is split into first hand accounts, uncovering how divided the party is right from the start. This gives a wonderful air of chaos to the story as every issue on the journey is dealt with in disastrous and sometimes hilarious ways.

My biggest problem with the book is, strangely enough, my favourite part of it. Parallel to the nine month voyage we are shown thirty years in the life of Peevay, a native Aboriginal who shows the cruelty and injustice that lead to the swift destruction of Tasmania’s indigenous people. His story is unmentioned in the blurb and I had no reason to expect any mention of Aboriginies as many white travellers of the time would have merely seen them as annoyances. The first hand account from Peevay is the most compelling and fascinating story in the whole book, in my opinion and really shows you the useless struggle between the native people and the overbearing and viscous white invaders. Soldiers and Pastors come hand in hand for Peevay in the destruction of his people and it disappoints me that such a story is not mentioned in the blurb of the book. Because you are not expecting this storyline, you feel a little lost about what it’s point is in the overall story. I felt that the two stories would have to be linked (as they are) but I had no idea how or why that would occur. That mixed with the complete difference in how much time passes in both stories leads to some disconnection and a sense of disjointed-ness. That said, the story really takes off when Peevay and the English passengers meet and I found the book impossible to put down from that moment on. The large amount of story telling required for us to truly empathise with Peevay well and truly pays off in this story and makes us feel for his cause, which requires him to assist the expedition in order to fulfil.

This book is an amazing window into Australia’s early history and has clearly been incredibly well researched. It’s also a view of English society, with the surgeon Thomas Potter being the most terrifying glimpse into the past. While Rev Wilson shows religion struggling with the rise of science, Potter shows how biologists were attempting to quantify humanity altogether by showing white supremacy as a genetic inevitability. Potters accounts are cold, distant and superior, showing a side of our past that many would rather forget.  Every character is complete and whole, feeling so real and intricate that you begin to know them. The way Kneale has shown white ignorance and cruelty is fantastic and every twist the novel takes is remarkably paced and excellently told. A truly wonderful novel and an unsurprising winner of the Whitbread Book Award.

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