This novel by Kate Grenville is another exploration of real events through fiction. In this case, she has taken the first settlers of New South Wales and developed a story about the first encounters with aboriginal people. It is a wonderful story of how one man is changed by his encounter with another culture.
Daniel Rooke is a young man who has been out of place all his life. At first, his gift for mathematics causes problems since it earns him a place at an academy where he does not fit in; all the other students are from wealthy families while he is a son of a clerk. He loses himself in numbers and in the natural world. When he grows up he joins the navy so that he can study navigation and the stars. Once again he is out of place, surrounded now by the tough, military minded soldiers and sailors on the trip to the other side of the world. His ship is full of prisoners sent to New South Wales as a punishment.
Once there, his gift for astronomy sets him apart and he is allowed to create a base of sorts away from the main camp, the better to study the stars and await an expected comet. In this semi- detached state he meets aborigines in a closer encounter than is achieved in the main settlement of Botany Bay. As the frequency of his meetings grow so does his desire to learn their language and develop understanding of their way of life. Instrumental in this is a young girl whose inquisitiveness allows her to venture where others of her people fear to go.
Yet, the story must move towards the point where conflict arises; why would it not when the interests of the settlers and the aborigines are in opposition? And so, Daniel Rooke, the accidental Lieutenant of the title finds his own conflict between serving His Majesty and serving science. When he is given a direct order to carry out an act that offends his sense of humanity, he must decide which side of himself will triumph.
This is a wonderful recreation of period with a clear sense of the moral dilemmas that can be faced at any time, given the circumstances. The ending shows what can happen to a man of integrity when the British Empire is in the way.
‘The Lieutenant’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?