Grenville (The Secret River) delivers another vivid novel about the British colonization of Australia, this one a delightful fictionalization of the life of William Dawes, a soldier-scholar who sailed from England in 1788 with the first fleet to transport British prisoners to New South Wales. Dawes's stand-in is Daniel Rooke, a loner with a passion for mathematics and astronomy who makes a living as a marine. He joins the expedition with the hope of tracking a comet that will not be visible from Great Britain, building a makeshift hut and observatory separate from the settlement (largely so he can avoid his prison guard duties). Although food is insufficient and the marines are outnumbered by the convicts, there is little unrest, but while Daniel shifts his ambitions from identifying previously unnamed stars to discovering a language and culture unknown in England, tensions escalate between the newcomers and the Aborigines, forcing Daniel to choose between duty to his king and loyalty to a land and people he has come to love. Grenville's storytelling shines: the backdrop is lush and Daniel is a wonderful creation—a conflicted, curious and endearing eccentric.
Intellectually gifted but socially awkward, Portsmouth schoolboy Daniel Rooke routinely isolates himself from his peers to explore the mechanisms of logic, arithmetic, and Greek. When a mentor recognizes his potential and introduces him to the study of astronomy, Rooke believes that he has found his place and purpose in life. He volunteers for the marines and signs on as an astronomer with the First Fleet sailing to New South Wales in 1788. After his astronomical studies falter in Australia, Rooke becomes friendly with a group of Aboriginals, attempting to learn and transcribe their language. The bond he forms with a girl named Tagaran — who reminds him of his younger sister — takes Rooke by surprise and leads to an unexpected turning point in his life. Verdict: Rooke is a genuine, sensitive protagonist, and this new novel offers a more intimate and optimistic perspective of Australian history than Grenville's award-winning epic, The Secret River. Grenville displays a graceful touch with the characters and the history that so clearly move her, and her writing sparkles with life. Highly recommended for readers of literary fiction. —Kelsy Peterson, Johnson County Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS
Veteran Australian author Grenville (The Secret River, 2006, etc.) poignantly depicts a man of science forced into a world shaped by action. Growing up in Portsmouth, England, Daniel Rooke is scholarly and bookish, a scientific and mathematical prodigy with minimal social skills and little interest in anything nearer to him than the stars he rapturously observes. Reaching adulthood, Daniel joins His Majesty's Marines as a commissioned officer and navigator, sailing first on a warship patrolling the colonies during the American Revolution. In 1788 he signs on in a similar capacity aboard Sirius, flagship of a fleet bound for Australia to build a penal colony. Grenville subsequently records Daniel's enthralled introduction to this new land's untamed beauty, his hopeful creation of a makeshift observatory, where he can study the mysteries of the southern skies, and his disillusioning perception of his comrade's disdainful indifference to the gentle culture of the local aborigines. An officially ordered act of aggression challenges the integrity of this paradise, destroying Daniel's utopian contentment and his chaste relationship with a beautiful native girl, Tagaran, of whom he and we learn frustratingly little. (Her age and the nature of her feelings for the compassionate Englishman would have been helpful, for starters.) Written with exemplary simplicity and festooned with gorgeous images, the narrative focuses on the meditative inner life of its main character; too many other possibilities are unexplored, too many issues unresolved. Nevertheless, readers' hearts will go out to the grieving Daniel. An involving, affecting novel that should have been even better.
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