Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (2000) has to be called a historical novel; it is set in 1857. Now, I have a resistance to the historical novel, but this writer is one of those, along with J. G. Farrell and John Fowles, who redeem the genre for me. The book was a prize-winner when it was published in 2000 but I feel it may be undeservedly overlooked today, perhaps because Matthew Kneale is a costive writer, with only a couple of other novels appearing since. To compensate for that, English Passengers is a masterpiece, an achievement of such complexity, ingenuity and sheer narrative power that each time I reread it I am newly surprised: how can a writer have thus conjured up the wildly conflicting attitudes of another time, another place, with such persuasive force?
This is an instance of what is called the multi-voice novel – in spades. There are various voices – fifteen or more – but a small handful of crucial ones power the story. Three mid-Victorian gentlemen have chartered a ship crewed by Manxmen with the purpose of sailing to Tasmania. Two of them are obsessive to the point of mania: the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson is convinced that
Tasmania is where the actual site of the Garden of Eden can be found; Dr Potter, a surgeon, has a sinister and perverted interest in racial types. The third member of the party, Timothy Renshaw, is a young botanist, propelled by his father to join the expedition in the belief that it will be a character-building experience.
Then there is Illiam Quillian Kewley, captain of the Sincerity, which is in fact – unknown to those who have chartered the ship – a smuggling vessel, with a cargo of brandy and tobacco hidden aboard. And, most crucially of all, there is the voice of Peevay, a Tasmanian aboriginal boy. Peevay’s mother was abducted and raped by an escaped convict turned seal-hunter. We learn of this event from Jack Harp, the rapist, and of how the woman escaped. She becomes the leader of an aboriginal group, and for the rest of her life is fired by bitter hatred of Europeans and a mission to find and kill her rapist. Interestingly, her voice is never heard – we see her entirely through the eyes of her son, whom she despises and rejects on account of his parentage.
As the story unfolds, more voices are added – those of the colonizers who are occupying the island and setting about the systematic obliteration of the way of life of its native inhabitants
and, in due course, the inhabitants themselves. There are conflicting attitudes here. Many of the settlers are former convicts, who simply slaughter parties of aborigines whenever they come across them. The Governor, finding the colony more or less ungovernable, feels impelled to set the militia on native raiders in order to appease the more vocal colonists, and is seeking to move the entire surviving aboriginal population to one corner of the island, away from their traditional hunting grounds.
This multi-voice technique is the perfect – perhaps the only – way in which to present this terrible apposition of inhumanity and a kind of innocence. Though it would be wrong to regard the aborigines as complete innocents: they are accustomed to pretty brisk treatment of one another in tribal warfare, and are indeed capable of the killing of settlers, of which they are accused. But they are innocent of the sophistry whereby the Governor, and indeed pretty well everyone else, can justify their
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