Saturday, 29 May 2010

English Passengers

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

Wow, this was a good book. I mean, a really good book. Up there with Cloud Atlas as one of the best books I have ever read. In some ways it reminded me of Cloud Atlas - all the different voices in each section of the book, and there're some similarities between this book and one of the Cloud Atlas novellas.

In the 1850s, a mad English vicar, a doctor with unsettling theories about the relative merits of different human 'types', and a lazy youth whose parents want to make a man of him, inadvertently charter a Manx smuggling vessel, not knowing that stowed in the hold are barrels of brandy and other contraband. They are destined for Tasmania, which the vicar believes is the true site of the Garden of Eden. The smuggling vessel is on the run from English customs officials.

There's drama on the oceans, and when the expedition reaches Tasmania and treks through the bush they meet with life and death situations. I can't explain the whole plot, there is way too much of it, but there's humour, farce and drama throughout. Threaded through the tale of the three hapless Englishmen is the history of Tasmania's aboriginal population. This is one of those books where you learn some history as you read on - white settlers exterminated the entire population within about 30 years. There are some shocking incidents, based on actual history.

The novel's narrated in sections by different characters - an aborigine, the ship's captain, the vicar, the doctor, the youth, and shorter sections by other minor characters. Each one has a wholly different voice - you hardly need to read the section heading to know who's talking. It's a great book to read to see how this can be done, and the effectiveness of using different voices for each character.

I was blown away by this book, did not want to get to the end though I did want to know what happened to all the characters. Very satisfying ending. Thoroughly recommended - if you like historical novels you will love this one

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