I know that books are poorly served by comparison to other similar works but on reading 'English Passengers' I could only think of Jane Roger's 'Promised Lands' and how Kneale's book is a pale imitation. KNeales characters are too stereotypical and transparent to demand any sympathy from his readers. The tale of exploitation of the new colonies and their aboriginal inhabitants is too important to be treated in such predictable ways. Rogers unltimately uplifting tale seeks to show landscape gets under the skin of its inhabitants and how a collision of two cultures can be profound for both. Kneales book by contrast puts stock characters (scally Manxman, stiff and tortured Englishman with social conscience) into conventional situations with disappointingly predictable results. As for the language experiments again Rogers finds the truest voices in an effortless way. Sorry folks I just can't agree with your opinions.
English Passengers is a tale which begins with one mans’ search for the Garden of Eden in Tazmania. However the story soon divides into many others, with a view of the colonisation of Australia during the nineteenth century brilliantly told from over twenty different perspectives, including that of a young aborigine named Peevee and a convict exiled to Australia for various crimes in England. This is probably the best book I have EVER read. Kneale superbly combines tragedy and horror with comedy and humour in this very beautiful novel. I couldn’t put this book down because it was so interesting and captivating. The novel is not only extremely entertaining but very informative – I learnt a lot about the history of colonisation of Australia and found it very intriguing. If you read only one book this year, make it English Passengers. The boring title does in no way reflect the brilliant thrill of the novel and you’ll undoubtedly read it in a matter of days!
English Passengers could have been titled Jumped up Victorian English Twerps Behaving Badly, or something like that. It could also have been called; why Imperialism sucks or why do some idiots think that they are morally and culturally superior to others? You may have already gathered that this is a book with depth, with meaning and of no little critique of a certain period in English history. English Passengers was written by Matthew Kneale, Kneale's background is as a historian, he studied History at Oxford and then turned novel writer. His two previous books, Whore Banquets and Sweet Thames, were both critically acclaimed and English Passengers was a 2000 Booker prize nominee and won the Whitbread book of the year for the same year. Kneale writes novels with a distinct historical perspective and English Passengers is no different in this respect, being in part a critique of the excesses of England's imperialistic push of the mid nineteenth century. It is 1857, Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley (what a great name) is in a financial mess, his wife wants a pampered lifestyle and he cannot provide it. In this quandary he decides that he should follow his grandfather's career as a bootlegger and purchases and renovates the ship Sincerity for this purpose, but the renovated sincerity is not as sincere as its name, its outward appearance hides a rather clever little secret hold, which certainly does not contain the Herring of which the ship is officially listed carrying on its jaunt from the Isle of Mann, to Maldon. What should have been a quick, but profitable jaunt, by virtue of a few farcical series of events, turns into rather more than the Captain expected and in his effort to avoid the English authorities, he ends up hired as passage for a rather strange expedition, headed by the rather pig-headed Reverend Geoffrey Wilson. The Reverend believes that he can prove Darwin and the entire spectrum of God doubting scientists w
rong, by substantiating that the Garden of Eden exists on the remote Australian island of Tasmania. Why, would he want to do this? Well as an amateur geologist he rejects the theory that the molten rock that the earth was made out of would have taken millions of years to cool and thus disproving the bible's pronouncement that the world is just 6000 years old. The Reverend believes that God had cooled the earth at great speed by a process of "divine refrigeration" and that whilst this Godly refrigerator was in operation that the Garden of Eden was a refuge from the heat, protected by a special kind of rock, that of course would withstand all that heat and provide shelter for the Earth's creatures. Dr Thomas Potter is added to be the expedition's surgeon. But the good doctor has his own selfish and bigoted aims to achieve, he believes that the world is made up of certain racial types, all with there own qualities and character and that ultimately certain racial types are bound to dominate the other. Naturally, being English the doctor believes that the native aborigines in Australia are at the bottom of the racial pile, being inferior in all aspects to the Englishman. Making up the numbers, is Renshaw a rather sullen, spoilt young botanist, forced to partake in the trip by parents who feel that it would be good for him. This is just the one part of the book; the other traces the life of an aborigine Peevay, the son of a Tasmanian aboriginal woman, who had been kidnapped and raped by an escaped "white" convict. Peevay's accounts start in 1824, just as the English are beginning to colonise Tasmania and leads to a collision course with Reverend Wilson's little trip and ends up in a real "Heart of Darkness" experience. Will the Captain ever sell his contraband, will the good Reverend ever stop ramming religion down everybody's throat and will the English ever stop being pompous and superior in
their attitude to the natives? Other aspects of life in a jolly colony are addressed, by virtue of Jack Harp, the kidnapping and raping convict, his accounts of life at Port Arthur penal colony are truly horrific and there is no small critique aimed by Kneale at the barbarity of the way the prisoners were treated and the pomposity of the men who over saw the colony. All the characters' stories are told by a combination of first person monologues, diary excerpts, book excerpts and letters; each character has their own individual voice, style and perspective and Kneale's ability with the pen is superb in the ease with which he transfers the reader to the eyes of each character. The reader is led through both the story of the voyage to Tasmania and the aborigines' voyage through white colonisation. The style of writing is superb, the book flows at a fair pace with clear and concise prose and is a joy to read, being one of those books that is easy to read, but still will frequently jolt the reader into thought and a questioning of their own values and beliefs. What makes the book simply outstanding is that many of the characters are actually based on real life historical figures, Dr Potter is based on a disgraced nineteenth century surgeon, Robert Knox, who published, The Races of Men a Fragment, (Potter publishes the Destiny of Nations). It was Knox's writing that has in part been attributed to Hitler's Mein Kampf. Moreover, the host of Governors and administrators of Tasmania are closely based on the people that actually held the posts, including Robson, a man who believed that he was helping the aborigines but was in effect by his efforts to "civilise" them, subjecting them to untold mental torture as the culture of the west, tried to eradicate the culture of the aborigines through the redeeming process of "western" civilisation. I was half way through this book, when the dreadful ev
ents of the 11th September, 2001 unfolded and what those events and this book reinforced for me is that, people should live and let live. Races and countries have their own culture and beliefs and we in the west should not with respect to English Imperialism have assumed that we were the civilised, just as now the U.S. should not believe that it is morally and culturally superior to the rest of the world as it seeks to colonise the world with its back door Imperialism. Of course nothing justifies the outrages of September the 11th, but Imperialism of whatever form, invokes strong feelings. Who are we to judge whose way of life is correct, who are we to say that our God is The God, does anybody have any proof as to who is right and wrong? This is a fantastic and huge book in all respects, it deals with the bigoted nature of some religious figures and religion in general, the pains that the English inflicted on native populations all across the globe, with their smug superior attitude of "of course we are civilised, the whole world should be forced to copy us!" Racism in all forms is addressed, not just the hateful sniping, but the more repressed deep seated racism that rests in all to some extent or another. An interesting feature of English Passengers is the way that it reinforces the point that as events happen, those involved will all judge them differently by virtue of their own background and in-built prejudices. Every voice in the book interprets and perceives each individual event in their own manner. In this regard, Kneale poses the question of whether any version of History is truly objective. Whether the writer is writing a non-fiction account or a fictional account based on the known facts, every writer comes to History with their own views, their own cultural history and so will perceive events in a different manner. Is this a heavy book? Well, yes, it deals with a range of extremely weighty subjects, but the b
ook is punctuated with superb humour. There is our Captain, beavering away in an attempt to offload his illicit cargo; the absolute hilarity of the Reverend's mission and his complete belief that the bible is correct, word for word; the subtle ridicule that Kneale subjects the pompous English to, by virtue of the crew of the Sincerity and their views as to the stupidity of the three English passengers; and most of all the tale of Peevay is told with a jaunty style. Kneale has given Peevay an English voice, but a voice that uses the range of vocabulary that would have been derived from his encounters with convicts "piss-poor" and the heavy religious teachings that the aborigines were subjected to. However, despite Peevay's partial grasp of the language and his turn of phrase, there are some deeply moving prose written by Kneale in this voice. "he...was like some fellow who is snared between his awake and his dreamings, and is pulled by both, stronger and stronger, never knowing what is true, till he is torn like paper. Tear got too big, so he jumped." English Passengers is a simply wonderful book, it has a great attention to historical accuracy so much so that it will educate the reader, it moves at a relentless pace, is packed with humour and important messages. It is easy to read and should appeal to all, in fact this is a simply superb book. There is so much more that I could say, but I have twittered on long enough, fantastic. English Passengers is published by Penguin, costs £6.99 in paperback and 458 pages long. Go read it.
Only a labour of love could produce a work of such epic scale. When he received the 'Whitbread book of the year' award, Mathew Kneale spoke of how he worked on this book over 5 years. And it shows. Many books have been described a 'epic narratives', but 'English Passengers' truly deserves such high praise. It is the summer of 1857 and Reverend Geoffrey Wilson is tired of 'scientific atheists'. There is Darwin with is 'Origin of species' debunking the very foundation of the Holy bible. Science was fast becoming the new 'religion'. Rev Wilson is convinced he knows the geographical location of the Garden of Eden, he believes it lies in Tasmania, formerly known as 'Van Diemen's ' land. It is a mission with the highest ideals. He sets out on an expedition to Tasmania. But there are other passengers in the ship. Each have there own ulterior motive to make the journey. There is the shady captain Iliam Quilliam Kewley and his motley crew of manxmen: what other cargo do they carry below decks? Is there a whiff of contraband tobacco above the sea air? There is the sinister surgeon Dr Potter, he has his own theories on the human race. He has other plans- none too honorable. Waht does he wish to accomplish once he arrives in 'Van Diemen's Land' As the ship drifts southwards with the passengers, we get to know Van Diemen's land through the eyes of Peevay, an Aboriginal. We get to know that far from being the Garden of Eden, it is a place of turmoil. We get to know how one would feel when one's home is over run by eager colonials hellbent on ethnic cleansing. How your land too can get raped and pillaged. There are other players too, in this drama. Each providing a skein to this rich and colourful tapestry. 'English Passengers' is the kind of book that most writers would dream to accomplish. Build on solid historical foundations yet free in
its imaginative flights, it tells the story through a whole bunch of narrative voices each distinct from the other. While most writers struggle to maintain ONE voice, Kneale masterfully controls his 20 odd narrators to such an extent that the transition from one to other is seamless and easily identifiable. Though strong in social commentary, the book never falters in its pace and offers a gripping tale of seafaring days before fancy gadgets took away the pleasures of navigation. It also accurately reflects the time of renaissance in scientific circles and the struggles of a man of religion in coping with the changes. There is a strong vein of humour and wit, despite the harrowing nature of the tale. There is mystery, adventure, history, comedy, horror all painted in the grand canvas by Kneale's agile hands. The pleasures of 'English passengers' are manifold to any true book lover. It is no wonder it won the 'Whitbread book of the year' and was shortlisted for the 'Booker'. While these accolades don't always mean a good read, in 'English Passengers' you need to have no such suspicions. Go read it.
Winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year and Novel Awards 2000 / As three English eccentrics set off for Tasmania in search of the Garden of Eden, a young Tasmanian struggles for very existence in the face of English invaders.