Australia, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, historical fiction, Kate Grenville, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Lieutenant’ by Kate Grenville


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 309 pages; 2009.

It seems fitting to review Kate Grenville‘s novel The Lieutenant on the eve of Australia Day, because the book focuses on an officer of the First Fleet.

First Fleet astronomer

Lieutenant Daniel Rooke is a young astronomer who sails to Australia, from Portsmouth, England, to set up an observatory — “a small room surmounted by a cone of wood and canvas, something like an Indian teepee” — to chart the stars, specifically the expected path of a comet once seen in 1532 and 1661 and due to be seen in the Southern Hemisphere in 1788.

In his little hut, on a remote headland away from the main settlement at Sydney Cove, the 26-year-old relishes the solitude and dark night sky. But as a red coat, he continually gets dragged back into the colony’s ongoing struggles with food supplies, convict labour and the need to find pasture land further afield. He also finds himself part of the new settlement’s attempts to communicate with the native inhabitants — dark, naked and armed with spears — which are not always successful.

But away from the prying eyes of his superiors, Rooke soon befriends the aboriginal people near his isolated observatory and makes a study of their language. He is particularly drawn to a young girl, Tagaran, who reminds him of his younger sister, and together they begin to teach each other words and phrases, which Rooke records in a book.

He got down an unused notebook from the shelf, felt the girl watching as he sat at the table, dipped the pen in the ink and opened the book. On the first page, in his neatest astronomer’s hand, he wrote: Tagaran, the name of a girl. Marray, wet. Paye wallan ill la be — he hesitated — concerning heavy rain.

But when tensions between the colony and the natives begin to rise, Rooke’s friendship with Tagaran puts him in a difficult position — where, exactly, does his loyalty lay? With Tagaran and her people, or the British crown?

A deeply reflective novel

I found The Lieutenant a rather lovely and deeply reflective novel. It gripped me for several days and plunged me right into the world of Rooke, a highly intelligent man, whose grasp of mathematics, navigation and astronomy are only matched by his perception of the world around him and his hankering for new and meaningful experiences. When he finds himself caught up in a moral quandary, you really feel for his dilemma — the wrong decision could cost him his life.

And, as ever, Grenville’s prose is poetic and I love the way she is able to touch on the complexity of history in just a handful of thoughtfully composed sentences. There’s a real truth to her writing and an uncanny ability to evoke atmosphere so that you almost feel as if you, too, are standing on that headland with Rooke, watching the waves roll in, with the vast heavens overhead and the untamed wilderness at your back.

Finally, in an afterward to this novel, Grenville explains that Rooke’s story is based on William Dawes, a young lieutenant and scholar who sailed with the First Fleet and made a study of the language of the indigenous people of the Sydney area. But she is also quick to point out that The Lieutenant is a novel and “should not be mistaken for history”.

4 thoughts on “‘The Lieutenant’ by Kate Grenville”

  1. I knew as I read it that this was a novel rather than ‘history’, but for me, this book put flesh on the bones of the first fleet/ early Sydney story in a way nothing else I’ve read has. I thoroughly enjoyed it.


  2. What I liked about it is that Grenville shows there were some Europeans who were keen to establish good relations with the indigenous population, whereas we all seem to think everyone felt the same and wanted to subjugate them. I like the way she paints in the grey areas instead of presenting everything purely in black and white terms.


  3. I really enjoyed, if that is the right word, Kate’s novel ‘The Secret River’ and have meant to read this one, especially as I now want to read her newest one too. I think this sounds like a great book again. I must try The Idea of Perfection. I meant to read it for ALM but alas whims have taken me elsewhere though your reviews have certainly set me up with some future reads.


  4. I’ve got all her books in my TBR, so expect to see a few more Grenville reviews over the coming year. I think The Lieutenant is quite a male book, actually, but I wonder whether it would pass your “I-don’t-like-ship-novels” test, as some of the book is set on a ship! The main character is a marine, after all. 🙂


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