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ENGLISH PASSENGERS by Matthew Kneale

ENGLISH PASSENGERS

By Matthew Kneale

Pub Date: March 14th, 2000
ISBN: 0-385-49743-1
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday

A richly satisfying debut, comparable in many ways to Andrea Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal, that uses nearly 20

carefully distinguished voices to tell the convoluted story of a 19th-century expedition to Tasmania and a stalemated conflict

between "civilization" and "savagery."

It's heavy going at first. In 1857, Captain Illian Kewley blandly relates the misadventures of the ship he commands, the

(rather grandly named) Sincerity, seized for smuggling, then "put up for charter," and hired to sail to Tasmania by an unlikely

pair of "passengers." Reverend Geoffrey Wilson aims to disprove the claims of geology by demonstrating that the biblical

Garden of Eden did exist: on this remote island off Australia's southern coast. His partner, Dr. Thomas Potter, motivated by

what Potter terms "scientific interest," seeks evidence to support his notion that Tasmanian aborigines represent "the very

lowest of all the races—or species—of men, being bereft of even the most rudimentary skills." The answer to Dr. Potter's theory

emerges in several narratives dating from 1820 and thereafter, in which we meet a number of Tasmania's colonial governing

officials and their families; "sealer" (and sailor) Jack Harp, for whom aboriginal women are sexual game ripe to be taken; and,

most importantly, a wily native named Peevay, whose intimacy with the "visiting" English will test his people's innate

gentleness and threaten their very existence, and Peevay's choleric "Mother," who swears revenge on the white men who have

abused her (and, in fact, becomes a kind of warrior queen whom her white educators will, in their innocence, rename

"Boadicea"). Kneale blends together their several stories adroitly, in a suspenseful piecemeal narrative that climaxes when those

begun in the 1820s extend 30 years into the future, the "English passengers" arrive at the port of Hobart, and the destinies of

two opposed cultures inexorably work themselves out.

Despite minor echoes of Great Expectations and Thomas Keneally's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith: an original,

impressively knowledgeable, and very moving historical novel.