It isn't often a debut novel breaks new ground and with such panache that it's certain to impact the future of a genre. Matthew Kneale's first is definitely forging a path into the 21st century. ENGLISH PASSENGERS embodies a refreshing approach to historical fiction and an exquisite challenge to both readers and writers.
A fictionalized tale of the British colonials in the 19th century, ENGLISH PASSENGERS emanates from two different locations --- a sailing ship bound for Tasmania and the island of Tasmania itself. With masterful skill, Kneale transports us between the events that evolved in the colonization of Tasmania over three decades and the subsequent voyage of the Sincerity as passengers and crew make their way toward the island and a convergence with destiny.
Tasmania was inhabited by many aboriginal tribes in the early 1800s, happily flourishing in their primitive cultures. As the era of rampant colonization began, the English established settlements in Australia and the surrounding islands, and the inevitable erosion of the native populations followed. The sequence of events echoes the historical pattern of all self-righteous conquerors --- obtain a foothold and eliminate the "uncivilized" by attrition or exportation. As Kneale's Tasmanian saga evolves, a detailed account of all that transpired is narrated through the eyes of a young Aborigine, Peevay, as he matures to an adult during this campaign of genocide.
Simultaneously, Kneale moves time forward thirty years to the nautical adventures of the ship's captain and crew from the Isle of Mann, an island notorious for producing seafaring opportunists. Caught with some contraband by Customs officials and facing heavy fines, Captain Kewley charters his ship to a group of Englishmen on an expedition to Tasmania. Life aboard ship quickly becomes volatile as personalities and individual agendas conflict.
The captain, a real conniver, manages to leave port with the majority of his contraband intact and, to the frustration of the Englishmen, drops anchor in various ports along their route in an attempt to unload his secret bounty. Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, a somewhat comical and pathetic zealot, leads the expedition intent on proving his theory that the Garden of Eden actually exists in Tasmania. Another passenger and Wilson's constant antagonist is Dr. Thomas Potter, a secretive character, whose reason for joining the expedition is not as noble as he professes. As the Sincerity progresses slowly toward Tasmania, we are witness to the absurdities of nineteenth century racism as Potter compiles a journal on his observations of various cultures. But there's another insidious aspect underlying his study of these native people, which, when finally revealed, triggers a cataclysmic finale.
The beauty of Kneale's novel lies not only in the sweeping magnitude of his story, but in the intriguing use of dialects as various characters narrate their reenactment of events. In fact, twenty characters contribute pieces of history from the perspectives of colonial officials, their wives, the natives, the various scoundrels and prisoners, the sailors and the Englishmen. A blend of Anglo-Manx, Dickens's English and aboriginal English may seem a bit awkward initially, but the storyline is so enthralling it soon flows with theatrical grace. Occasional touches of humor, enlightening passages on aboriginal life, and Peevay's heart wrenching relationship with his mother add an extraordinary number of layers to an exciting literary venture from a talented new author.
Reviewed by Ann Bruns on January 16, 2001