I seem to remember being an early advocate of The Secret River by Kate Grenville, it was one of my best reads of 2006, struck that magical reading chord which has never left me. The sign of a brilliant book for me is that I can still hear the pitch of the plot, sense the mood the book created several years on, so I was mad keen to read Kate Grenville's latest novel The Lieutenant published by Canongate.
I think only time will tell me whether I have enjoyed this one quite as much, I suspect I have but in a different way.
It felt obvious to me from the minute I met Daniel Rooke that Kate Grenville wanted me to place this character of hers on the autistic spectrum and rightly or wrongly I did. All the signs were just asking for me to make the twenty-first century diagnosis that would have been unknown in the 1770s.
The outsider, the unusually intelligent child with a gift for mathematics, minimal eye contact with others, socially isolated from his peers, logic speaking over reason. The final clincher, Rooke's first encounter with a sea battle after he has signed up with Her Majesty's Marine Forces in Portsmouth (presumably now the Royal Marines)
'A sea battle - his first experience of active combat - seemed nothing more than a question of distance, of trajectory, of speed relative to distance...fear took everyone a different way. For Rooke it led back to his old friends the primes. Seventy-nine, eighty-three, eighty-nine, ninety-seven...'
Yet prior to this Rooke has bade a fond farewell to his sister Anne,
'He put his arm round her and hugged her. He would miss his clever sister. She was the one person in the world with whom he had never needed to pretend to be someone else.'
He has witnessed and been devastated by an execution,
'Rooke knew he would not forget. In that afternoon in which feeling had been assaulted by numbness he saw that under the benign surface of life in His Majesty's service, under its rituals and its uniforms and pleasantries was horror.'
This is not a man devoid of feelings and emotions but a man who struggles to express them, so it was with this foundation in place in my mind that I read on. It all added together to make Rooke's voyage to Australia on a convict ship as an astronomer with the First Fleet and subsequent settlement in this new land hugely interesting.
How Rooke copes with the Aboriginal people and their language makes for fascinating reading and feels entirely relevant after my read of Eleanor Thom's The Tin-Kin
So easy to take language for granted and Kate Grenville dissects beautifully the slippery nature of words, the complexities of meaning and interpretation that all gave me cause to think about language itself in greater depth than I may had cause to before.
How I take for granted that a word means what I know it to mean became open to negotiation once I'd read this book because who decided all that in the first instance?
It's one of those big - black - hole - infinity - and - beyond questions that can be quite scary to try and get your head around.
Then I spend an hour rummaging around because I've read a couple of pieces by Kate Grenville recently but where?
It's that Waterstone's magazine again and I learn that this book has also been an endeavour to examine the difficulties of communication between two nations and cultures, replete with possibilities but also deadeningly laden with difficulties and insurmountable obstacles.
This wouldn't be Kate Grenville if there wasn't some conscience-churning material about just who is the savage because in another recent article (the one I can't find) I recall mention of the moment of sickening realisation when Kate Grenville faced up to her own and her country's demons on the subject of colonial dominance. The Lieutenant leaves no doubt that the savage is absolutely not the Aboriginal people with whom Rooke forges unique and tender bonds. He is forced to make eye contact with Tagaran as the search for a shared meaning to the words consumes him and becomes vital, in many ways eschewing and overcoming all my autistic spectrum diagnosis speculation as Rooke arrives at a new understanding of himself and others.
From Kate Grenville's informative Author's Note I learn that the book is based on recorded events surrounding the life of a young lieutenant William Dawes who left the most extensive record of the language of the indigenous people, word lists and speculations about the grammatical structure of language and the story is fascinating.
So now I have recorded my thoughts I return to that first sentence; have I enjoyed this one quite as much, will I still hear the note it strikes in the future, well a few hundred words on and a resounding yes is the answer to that.
The Lieutenant a book that has revealed vast and hidden depths between the word on the page and the workings of my mind, I know it will continue to resonate and Canongate have three prize-draw copies (sorry UK poms only because of copyright) so it can resonate for you too, names in comments and Rocky will wear his hat with the corks for this one.