Wednesday, March 02, 2011

English Passengers
English Passengers 

"Truly it was a mystery to confuse how they could ever kill all my ones and steal the world, or even why they wanted it, as it was no place they could endure. Why, they couldn't live here just alone but had to carry some Hobart Town with them hither and thither. "

This is an historical novel with multiple story lines beginning with the story of Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, the leader of a crew of Manx smugglers. It is here that both the authenticity and complexity of the novel begins to display itself. Kewley is a lively character as are his fellow Manx shipmates. Apparently the Isle Of Man, according to historical sources, was home to Manx smugglers who wandered widely and that some were forcibly transported to the New World, where they endured the hospitality of Port Arthur prison in Tasmania. I enjoyed this part as it was very amusing when Kewley and crew try to offload their ill-gotten gains. But then their ship attracts the attention of Customs, and Kewley is forced to consider the indignity of taking on board paying passengers.

This is divine timing for the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, who needs a ship to go to Tasmania to prove his theory of Divine Refrigeration. His discourse offers the rather surprising argument that the Garden of Eden is to be found within Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). Wilson has been inspired by the writings of Darwinists, who believe that the Bible is not to be taken literally when it comes to the question of Genesis and the Origins of Species. Unfortunately, Wilson's sponsor is the infantile entrepreneur Jonah Childs whose notion of a good idea would be to use wallabies as pack animals. Childs further demonstrates his poor judgement when he chooses the odious Doctor Potter as botanist for the trip who also volunteers as ship's surgeon. It doesn't take long for Wilson and Potter to realise that they are natural enemies, and it seems that we could be in for a battle of the survival of the fittest, as each take turns to try to convert Kewley's crew. No matter how he tries, Kewley is unable to dump his passengers, so off into the New World they sail.

Another storyline retreats in time to the 1820s to detail the narration of Peevay, a Tasmanian Aborigine, who relates how the 'ghosts' take over the land of his people, and drive them to extinction. He is the product of a rape: his mother was snatched by a white sealer and imprisoned on his island. She escaped, but is forever haunted by the seething hatred she feels for the man who did that to her. When his mother rejects him due to his mixed blood, Peevay yearns for his father. One might think that a novel full of individual narrators would be difficult to navigate, but Kneale handles this well with vivid and vital characters who are engaging for the reader, even when they are as unlikeable as Potter is. I found Kneale's narrative always quite stimulating as did the rest of our Thursday evening book group. He artfully brings all of these narratives to life in a masterful display of black comedy.

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