The January 2017 Book Club read was English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, a book I would never had chosen to pick up for a multitude of reasons.
English Passengers is a historical fiction novel set around the 1850s and the British ‘settling’ of Tasmania.
The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson is determined to prove that the Garden of Eden is alive and well in the mysterious wilderness of Tasmania and organises an expedition which is ill-fated right from the start. His expedition party is small and they find themselves aboard the Sincerity a Manx trading ship under Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, rather than the vessel they originally planned. Unknown to them, the Sincerity is actually a smuggling ship on the run from British Customs, but really, this is the least of the expeditions issues. Wilson’s expedition ‘scientist’ Dr. Potter is nothing short of creepy, and tensions between them steadily build over the long voyage as the science vs. God argument rages and boils.
In Tasmania itself, things are far from peaceful as the British set about building their penal colonies and ‘civilising’ the native Aborigine people there. When they realise this isn’t going to work, events turn brutal and ‘war’ rages between the ‘civil’ Brits and the Aborigine people. Except one side has guns and the other nothing but handmade spears designed more for the hunting of wallabies than anything else. It is a harrowing series of events with an inevitably bloody ending.
Needless to say, Tasmania is not the Heavenly garden Reverend Wilson is expecting when he arrives.
The book is told from multiple perspectives – I’d say near 20 different ones spread over the book – with some narrators appearing only once and others multiple times throughout the story. Although this took a little getting used to, I loved how it meant that you got every side of the story as it progressed. Usually a story is told either from the perspective of the persecuted or the persecutors but in English Passengers you saw it all and it was fascinating, horrifying and compulsive reading.
Out of all these characters, no two were ever the same. The characterisation was incredible throughout the story and it was this that kept me going even when the going was tough. Many of the characters were abhorrent for varying reasons but they were so well formed that you could see their rationality behind their behaviours and thoughts.
At 462 pages long, reading this was no small feat – it was definitely not one to leave until the night before Book Club to pick up! I started it in mid-January and didn’t finish it until the night before our Book Club meeting on the 5th of February and I read some of it every single day in that time.
It was not an easy read but we all agreed that it was worth battling through because the ending was incredibly satisfying and the whole story was an education about a part of British history that you very rarely hear about. I genuinely had no idea that when we went over there to build the penal colonies, we persecuted the Tasmanian natives out of existence.
When we started discussing the book, we all started with how exhausting and hard it was to read and it all sounded very negative but as the talk continued our list of things we had loved about it grew and grew. The characters that made us laugh, made us angry, disgusted us and fascinated us, the details of the story that made it come alive, even when they were horrible details, and most of all, the way the ending brought everything together neatly and in such a satisfying way that it made all the effort put into reading it more than worth it.
Everyone had their favourite characters – mine were Peevay the half-caste Aborigine (and his brilliant but tragic mother, Walyeric), and Captain Kewley (and not just because his rhyming first names amused me right from the outset). Peevay’s voice took a bit of getting used to, but I liked the way he developed and saw the world and Captain Kewley was just the right balance of gritty and hapless that I just loved him and looked forward to his sections the most.
If it hadn’t been a Book Club book, I’d have abandoned English Passengers pretty early on because it felt like too much hard work, but I am SO glad I persevered. I muttered and grumbled my way through all 462 pages but I have come out the other side grateful that I stuck with it to the end.
Liberty called it the ‘bestworst book ever’ and I’m happy to go with that – it fits the way we all felt about it well!
Overall I give it 4.5/5* – not quite the full five because it is SO HARD to read at times. But well worth it, despite my moaning 😉