Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 309 pages; 2009.
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”.