4 out of 5: The author's note accompanying Kate Grenville’s latest novel describes The Lieutenant as "a work of fiction ... inspired by recorded events." The recorded events are those of the life of astronomer, mathematician, and linguist William Dawes, who traveled to New South Wales in 1788 as a soldier with the first load of British prisoners tasked with establishing a British colony. Grenville’s version of Dawes, named Daniel Rooke, quickly establishes himself as a recluse once in New South Wales. Rooke builds a solitary hut on a promontory and spends his time recording weather conditions and tracing the paths of the stars.
Perhaps because of his isolation from the larger settlement, Rooke befriends a group of natives, including a young girl who takes on the task of teaching Rooke her language:
What he had not learned from Latin or Greek he was learning from the people of New South Wales. It was this: you did not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who spoke it with you. His friendship with Tagaran was not a list of objects, or the words for things eaten or not eaten, thrown or not thrown. It was the slow constructing of the map of a relationship.As Rooke forges relationships, tension increases between the other settlers and the natives, setting the stage for conflict.
In The Lieutenant, Grenville deftly avoids the stereotypes that so often haunt stories about the displacement of native populations by white settlement. Grenville’s simple prose subtly builds up to a dramatic event with significant moral implications. Perhaps because it is based on the historical record, Rooke’s story is never overly dramatic and always rings true. His experiences demonstrate the power of language and hint at the peaceful coexistence that could have been.