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A Room Made of Leaves


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Kate Grenville has a winning formula and she’s jolly well going to stick with it.

That formula is to set a story around the early years of the penal colony that has now grown into Sydney; to focus on particular early settlers; their journey to the colony; their work in claiming a life for themselves; and the impact that had on the Indigenous population. Kate Grenville does this very well; her writing is evocative; she creates both the place and the atmosphere of the time. She poses the same difficult questions about the human instinct for survival even at the cost of others – whether that is the crime that resulted in transportation; the exploitation of the convicts by the naval officers – using them essentially as slave labour; or the dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal people. There is a sense that it might all have turned out differently with more respect; but equally a sense that people did not (and still do not) want to give up their privilege. Plus, there’s the difficult truth that there was a lot achieved in a very short space of time in those early days when human rights, procedural fairness and accountability did not present obstacles. It is unlikely that modern bureaucracies could achieve so much, so quickly. 

In a bit of a departure, A Room Made of Leaves names real people: the Macarthurs – wool barons – after whom many Australian things are named. The premise is that Elizabeth Macarthur left a written account of her life which is now being transcribed. In this account, she focuses on her turbulent but middle-class childhood in Devon, her obligation to marry and follow a rather mediocre Naval Ensign after falling pregnant, and her early experiences in New South Wales. She is a diplomat who seeks to achieve by listening, learning and implementing. Her husband John is a hot-headed, impetuous man with a fondness for duelling – a chancer who will wheedle and blackmail his way to success. Elizabeth’s narrative would have us believe that she created a wool empire in spite of her husband; the reality is that it took the mis-matched pair to achieve success. Elizabeth provided the ideas and sourced the knowledge of sheep-husbandry; John obtained the land and made sure the traditional owners were “dealt with”. 

We also meet Lieutenant Dawes, thinly disguised as Daniel Rooke in The Lieutenant, who provides some comfort for Elizabeth in the early years of an unhappy marriage. Dawes was interested in Aboriginal languages and culture, as well as learning more about the land and its plant-life. Through Dawes, Elizabeth came to meet some of the Traditional Owners whose land her husband was intent on acquiring. But when Dawes returned to England, Elizabeth lost both her lover and her moral compass. She understood that the Aboriginal people, just like her slave-convicts, were people too. She just chose to push that to the back of her mind as she amassed her fortune. 

Like her previous Thornhill series, A Room Made of Leaves is beautifully done, but it is bleak and the message can seem sometimes to take over the story. 

As a footnote, A Room Made of Leaves would have been written before the Black Lives Matter movement started to shine a spotlight onto specific historical figures. As a society, we are starting to question the iconic status that many colonialists have enjoyed; to question the legacy of place names and statues. The use of real names in this fiction may cause too much attention to be focused on the names rather than on the real legacy which is one of enduring privilege that was earned only through exploitation and genocide. 

 

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