Sunday, March 8, 2009

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

This novel is humourous and moving by turns. Dealing with the English colonisation of Tasmania and the cruel displacement and distruction of the indigenous peoples, it is written from multiple viewpoints: various English travellers on their way to prove that Tasmania is the site of the biblical Eden; the ship's crew from the Isle of Man who take them there; one of the indigenous Tasmanians and various minor characters alomg the way.

Kneale creates a believable voice for each of his characters, and the multiple viewpoints weave together a story more vivid and revealing than a single authorial point of view could achieve. The humour comes from the increasingly ridiculous Europeans, blinkered to the extreme and forcing events to fit their pre-existing world-views. The profound sadness comes from the destruction of a complex society through misguided and often wilfully cruel and inhumane actions.

The endings are surprising, the journey there engaging. This book may not be a true historical document, but it certainly gives a believable insight into how such an atrocity could have come about. A rich and well-crafted read.

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