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The Lieutenant - General Discussion

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The Lieutenant is a historical fiction based on the story of a true life first fleet lieutenant. This follows on from Kate Grenville's previous work, The Secret River, which also offered a fitionalised account of early settlers in Australia - although from a convict perspective. It's inevitable that the two novels will be compared, which is a pity as it will do The Lieutenant no favours.

On the face of it, The Lieutenant is a worthy, well written novel. The main character, Daniel Rooke is three dimensional, caught in a dilemma between serving the crown forces whom he perceives increasingly to be unjust, or trying to establish meaningful contact with the aboriginal people. Rooke has a convenient antithesis in the form of Silk, a confident, gregarious and arrogant Lieutenant. And whilst Rooke is employed to work as an astronomer, Silk's task is to establish contact with the savages, as he calls them. Unsurprisingly, given his prejudices, Silk is not very successful, bringing him into conflict with his erstwhile friend Rooke. Yet the battleground for the challenge is the local language, and it doesn't always make for a good spectator sport. Long lists of words and phrases follow one another to the point that the central sections of the novel are almost as much in italics as regular type. On its own, this need not be damning, but against The Secret River, which was never less than engrossing, it looks like a misjudgement.

Again, perhaps The Lieutenant suffers from being too closely drawn to reality, whilst The Secret River was able to work without the fetters of fact. And I suspect the Secret River was a fair bit longer, allowing the characters to develop further, giving them a meaningful life in London from which they were separated. Rooke seems to have no life back home, and a rather monastic life in Australia. And whilst the ending of The Secret River is a moment of enormous pathos - the balance of material success against a lingering homesickness, there is no similar ending in The Lieutenant.

So, whilst The Lieutenant is a good and useful account of early years Ausralia which, on its own would stand up to scrutiny, it is the slightly disappointing sequel - or perhaps prequel. It does give a voice to aboriginal people and shows a glimmer of how things might have been different if some individual and identifiable decisions had gone the other way. But then, the novel's zeitgeist suggests the alternatives never stood a chance of being explored. The writing was firmly on the wall, from the Governor down.

****o

Edited by MisterHobgoblin

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I'm so glad that I never got round to reading The Secret River (in spite of acquiring two copies). The Lieutenant is the best book I have read this year.

 

As the source material was basically William Dawes' notebooks it is not surprising that they had such a prominent part in the novel. I suppose that KG could have padded the story out with more incidents, given Rooke a pre-Australian history and imagined the events between then and his final days, but I'm glad that the fictional version was kept to this minimum. I liked the sparseness of the account.

 

I will be reading The Secret River in due course ;)

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Very enjoyable.

I thought the narrative sections describing Rooke's thoughts were very well done. The way his poor interpersonal skills were described worked for me. I must see what people thought of The Secret River

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Very enjoyable.

The way his poor interpersonal skills were described worked for me.

In the opening passages I suspected a degree of ASD, which could possibly have been an advantage in communicating with peoples for whom eye-to-eye contact is threatening and whose approach to meeting with strangers is more oblique.

The similarities to ASD are much less evident as the book progresses.

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In the opening passages I suspected a degree of ASD...

The similarities to ASD are much less evident as the book progresses.

Yes I wondered about that as well. I've always suspected that geniuses exhibit symptoms of ASD.

It could, however just have been extreme shyness.

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Just finished this and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, I felt that it was either a little too long or a little short on plot, which may amount to the same thing. I agree with Mr HG that the section full of italics listing the words that Rooke had been learning was a bit superfluous and certainly didn't add to the pace of the book.

 

Overall though, the characters and the sense of place was remarkably well drawn. I have read the Secret River, which I liked, but no longer have my copy. If anyone has one to hand, could they check how much time has elapsed between the telling of the two stories?

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I finished this book last week - I'm trying to put my thoughts into words but failing miserably. So far I've started my post four times and not been happy with it so I think I shall go away, think about it and come back to start again!

 

I'm finding it hard because I'm not sure whether or not I liked it!

 

I'll be back......

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I quite liked this book (Mr HG very kindly passed his review copy along to me)although I didn't think it was quite as evocative or polished as some of Grenville's other work.

 

In Australia there has been a lot of debate about The Secret River, coming from historians who took issue (in brief) with Grenville's fictionalising of the historical record. In addition to the regular complaints made about historical fiction - that it is impossible to really enter the consciousness of a character from another time - Grenville made the mistake of saying in a radio interview that she viewed herself as being on a ladder ''looking down'' on current historical debate. I think perhaps Australian historians do fewer radio interviews than fiction writers and don't realise that they're hard! To avoid dead air, you have to speak without pausing to think. Grenville later explained that a better metaphor would be watching from the sidelines but by then a few historians had gone crazy. Grenville and writers like her were accused of trying to drive historians off track, of (basically)not knowing their place.

 

There are some ways in which The Lieutenant seems to be a fictional response to all of this. Firstly there is the raised finger that is answering complaints about a novel set in Australia's first days of settlement with another novel set in a similar period. Then there is the matter of language. I think the aboriginal words that people have mentioned in the text are essential to what seems to be Grenville's project in this book, that is, exploring the importance of words and of language and their role in human consciousness.

 

So we have Rooke, who works on a dictionary of translated terms, thinking, 'The slaves were utterly strange, their lives unimaginable, but they walked and spoke, just as he did himself'. And later, 'You did not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who spoke it with you'. And,most critically, once he has been challanged and learned more about his own capacity to resist authority when a more natural justice demands it, he realises that although he arrived in NSW as an ordinary marine, since then he 'had been replaced, syllable by syllable (my emphasis) by some other man.'

 

It's the power of words to conjure another reality - another time, another place, a separate human consciousness - that is the greatest power of literature (this is true of certain well-written histories as well as of fiction). I think perahps historians have pushed Grenville slightly off course and The Lieutenant could have been a little more fully realised but whatever this novel's limitations I admire Kate Grenville for standing up for herself against the intellectual bullies. Three cheers for her.

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There are some ways in which The Lieutenant seems to be a fictional response to all of this.
Interestingly I thought The Secret River was more realistic. For a start it didn't romanticise the natives and it clearly showed that the europeans lack of understanding of a nomadic people.

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One of the criticisms aimed at The Secret River was that because Grenville allowed herself access to the viewpoint of European characters but not aboriginal (she said that she did this as a gesture of respect, because she did not want to presume she understood the black experience) and becuse of incidents such a the one with the spade and the shovel being moved from 1788 (actual first contact) to some years in the future, the aboriginal characters look incapable of learning from the experience of contact. The reaction of aboriginal people to whites arriving in their midst actually was far more nuanced and subtle - and more is understood about it - than Grenville allows. For instance, they experimented with ways of being understood.

 

I've been wondering if Grenville learned something from this particular criticissm - which may have been more just than some of the others- and that is why aboriginal characters in The Lieutenant- particularly Tagaran - are shown to learn, themselves, and to change, as a result of contact. But the issue is a vexed one. For instance, I'm not sure that realism itself is an idea that would have any currency within aboriginal culture.

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I'm still struggling with my thoughts on this book.

I sympathised with the natives and found the settlers quite despicable even though I know that ignorance was responsible for the way they were.

 

I didn't hate the book - I read it and finished it quite easily but I'm finding it hard to make an opinion of it, which is making it hard to summarise my thoughts.

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I have just finished this very readable book. I have not read The Secret River so perhaps, judging from the above reviews, I am able to view this on its own merits.

 

As a subject matter I found it fascinating that the novel was based on a real experience and that the italicized content actually exists. In fact far from being over-long or difficult to get through, I found this part of the book fascinating; to see how Rooke evolved as a person through his realization that words alone did not allow him to communicate - in this case with another race.

 

Rooke was a loner from birth it would seem. As I read his character I credited him with suffering from some form of Aspergers (I am not sure if that is included in ASD). Asperger suffers that I know have similar problems he had as a child with personal relationships, but also have some amazing mental attribute which seems to set them apart from their peers. Basically, they are different. My reading of Rooke's character is that in Australia he was able to empathize with the 'difference' the aboriginals posed to the incomers or invaders as I like to think of them.

 

Communication with fellow beings had been Rooke's problem all his life. He even found it difficult to communicate in English. Yet, through struggling with the aboriginal language he realised that language alone was not the way to fully understand the people. As you say Kimberley, Rooke realised 'You did not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who spoke it with you'. For me this was his epiphany and changed him and his life.

 

I thought Rooke's character was well written, as were the main supporting cast. Certainly for me the cabin and observatory were beautifully drawn - I could almost feel as if I was in that tent sometimes.

 

A slightly disjointed ending for me, but informative nevertheless. I loved the book and would recommend it as a great read. I think I will go and find The Secret River now.

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I think I'm having trouble putting my thoughts into words because the book didn't make an impression on me one way or another.

 

I was talking to my mum about the fact that I couldn't write anything because the book really did nothing for me (but I don't think it was a bad book). My mum suggested I write that! So I have.

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Although it's more than 300 pages long, I thought The Lieutenant needed a bit more 'filling out' throughout the book, but especially the first third.

 

Another light let down was the antagonistic pairing of Rooke and Silk.

 

Better was the science aspect that was well written, and the passages of the study of the language. I didn't find those dry or repetitive at all and were one of my favourite parts, sounding out loud the words as I read them.

 

I've not read The Secret River (and The Lieutenant doesn't make want to rush and out and get it) and so I can't compare the two.

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I've not read The Secret River (and The Lieutenant doesn't make want to rush and out and get it) and so I can't compare the two.
I guess that's another way of telling what I thought of the. I have not yet read The Secret River but it is sitting on my TBR shelf and I have less inclination to read it now than I did before! The Lieutenant has put me off it to say the least.

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I guess that's another way of telling what I thought of the. I have not yet read The Secret River but it is sitting on my TBR shelf and I have less inclination to read it now than I did before! The Lieutenant has put me off it to say the least.

The Lieutenant encouraged me to read The Secret River and I'm glad that I did...

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The Lieutenant encouraged me to read The Secret River and I'm glad that I did...

Yes, I do think The Secret River is worth read, even if you didn't really like The Lieutenant - it's the better of the two books. Better still is Grenville's earlier Orange Prize-winner, The Idea of Perfection.

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Yes, I do think The Secret River is worth read, even if you didn't really like The Lieutenant - it's the better of the two books. Better still is Grenville's earlier Orange Prize-winner, The Idea of Perfection.
I will read it sometime, it just isn't on my priority list. Maybe it should be :rolleyes:

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Better was the science aspect that was well written, and the passages of the study of the language. I didn't find those dry or repetitive at all and were one of my favourite parts, sounding out loud the words as I read them.

 

I enjoyed reading 'The Lieutenant' and found it to be quite an original piece of writing. Like Adrian I liked the scientific aspect and was particularly interested in how Grenville dealt with the language issues, especially her description of how people from two different language and cultural backgrounds, with little in common except their humanity, succeeded in overcoming their isolation from each other. My only criticism was that I felt that the story jumped rather clumsily from Rooke's experiences in Australia to his later work, about which I should like to have read more.

 

'The Lieutenant' has encouraged me to read 'The Secret River' which is one of my current reads.

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