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English Passengers Hardcover – 2 Mar 2000

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Ltd; 1st Edition edition (2 Mar. 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0241140684
  • ISBN-13: 978-0241140680
  • Product Dimensions: 16 x 4.3 x 24.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 673,297 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Amazon Review

Christopher Columbus was looking for a passage to India when he ran full-tilt into the Americas. One of the narrators of Matthew Kneale's ambitious historical novel English Passengers has more modest aspirations: Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley wants only to smuggle a little tobacco, brandy and French pornography from the Isle of Mann to a secluded beach in England. Yet somehow in the process he and his crew end up weighing anchor for Australia. Worse, they are forced to carry three temperamental Englishmen bound for Tasmania on a mission to discover the exact location of the Garden of Eden. The year is 1857, and the study of geology is beginning to make serious inroads into areas of religious doctrine; when the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson runs across a scientific treatise that puts the age of Silurian Limestone somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100,000 years, he is scandalised: "This was despite the fact that the Bible tells, and with great clarity, that the earth was created a mere six thousand years ago". His many attempts to prove the Bible's accuracy lead, eventually, to a scientific expedition comprising himself, Timothy Renshaw, a dilettante botanist, and Dr Thomas Potter.

Now jump back 30 years, to 1828, when a revolution of sorts is stirring on the island of Tasmania. Over the years white settlers have been encroaching on aboriginal land and relations have deteriorated into violence. At the heart of the action is Peevay, a young man abandoned by his aborigine mother, who had been kidnapped and raped by a white escaped convict. Now his vengeful mother is leading a war against the whites, and Peevay, desperate to win her love, has joined her. Chapters from the past narrated by Peevay and augmented by letters and dispatches from white settlers alternate with the sections told by Kewley, Wilson, Renshaw and Potter. Eventually, of course, the two timelines intersect with momentous results.

War, mutiny, shipwreck and not a little farce make English Passengers a gripping read, but it is Matthew Kneale's literary ventriloquism that renders it remarkable. In a novel with so many different points of view, the individuality of each voice stands out. There is, for instance, the mutinous Dr Potter, whose descent into paranoia and egomania results in diary entries reminiscent of a 19th-century psychotic Bridget Jones: "Manxmen = treacherous even to v. last. Self heard Brew (lashed to mainmast as per usual) instructing helmsman to steer N.N.W. when self questioned he re. this he claiming we = carried into Bay of Biscay by difficult sea currents + must set course to avoid Breton Peninsular. He pointing to distant point of land to N.N.E. claiming this = Brittany. Self = doubtful".

Perhaps the most compelling voice in English Passengers belongs to Peevay, who paints a vivid picture of aboriginal life in a foreign tongue he nonetheless makes his own:

When we sat so in the dark, after our eating, Tartoyen told us stories--secret stories that I will not say even now--about the moon and sun, and how everyone got made, from men and wallaby to seal and kangaroo rat and so. Also he told who was in those rocks and mountains and stars, and how they went there. Until, by and by, I could hear stories as we walked across the world, and divine how it got so, till I knew the world as if he was some family fellow of mine.
By the close of this epic tale, the world Peevay knew has gone forever, and the lives of the Manx sailors and English passengers have been irrevocably changed. Based on real events in Tasmanian history, Matthew Kneale's novel delivers a home truth about Australia's brutal colonial past, even as it conveys the wonder and allure of the age of exploration. --Alix Wilber


What the Whitbread judges said: “English Passengers reads like a dream – one of the most enjoyable books we’ve ever read for pure, unadulterated, page-turning excitement. Unquestionably the novel of the year for its stunning historical depth, superb control of narrative and masterly mix of tragedy and comedy, and for Kneale’s remarkable ability to deal with complex historical truths without ever resorting to bogus hypocritical cant. An absolute delight, from start to finish.”

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Michael Kyriagis on 5 Dec. 2000
Format: Hardcover
As an Australian now living and working in London, I relished the prospect of reading a book about 'home', albeit a historical one. I remain part of a global 'book-club' that started in Sydney 5 years ago and which continues today with 2 people in Sydney, one in Dublin and myself in London. All done by email of course (how 2000) and yet we unanimously chose to read "English Passengers" for November as part of our yearly tradition of reading one of the non-winning Booker Prize nominees. And to remind some of us about home!
The verdict? I 'loved it' initially but with the passage of time, I will say that I 'really enjoyed' it. "English Passengers" is one of those books that gains most from the immediacy of reading it and conjuring up fantastic and colourful images as you turn the page. After a few weeks however, it seems more like a surreal novel or experience.
Which is not to detract from my ultimate view that this was a thoroughly enjoyable read. The story of a boat load of English passengers making their way half-way across the globe on a Manx boat ostensibly to discover the Garden of Eden in Tasmania (and other not-so worthy eugenic finds) is both ludicrous and brilliantly imaginative at once.
Above all, Matthew Kneale knows how to carry a complex narrative using a mix of diverse characters (20 at last count) relating their personal experiences and views at random. A unique approach to presenting aspects of Australia's early (and not so proud) history and Kneale certainly does an admirable job of 'capturing' voices as diverse as the Manx ship captain (world weary but wise), convicts at Port Arthur (brutal but with cause) and especially the Aborigine Peevay and his warrior-like mother (oppressed but dignified and defiant).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 13 Feb. 2001
Format: Hardcover
This novel was by far the most readable on the Booker 2000 shortlist, but sadly, as we all know, such books often don't win the prize. It was also the best-written and most consistent book: thankfully, justice has now prevailed and Matthew Kneale has deservedly walked off with the Whitbread.
Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley starts off this magnificent, polyphonic novel. He's the leader of a crew of Manx smugglers. This is where you get the first hint of the authenticity and complexity that Matthew Kneale has worked into this tome. Kewley's a brilliant, lively character along with his fellow Manx shipmates. If you bother to look at the census returns for the Isle Of Man for the nineteenth century, you'll see that there are Kneales mixed up with the Kewleys and the Mylchreests (indeed, the Arts and Books section of the Telegraph recently divulged that Matthew Kneale was born on the Isle of Man). So, Kneale, with his glossary of the Anglo-Manx dialect, seems to start off writing about characters that are fairly close to home. However, historical sources do relate that Manx smugglers did wander widely and that some were forcibly transported to the New World, where they endured the experimental hospitality of Port Arthur prison in Tasmania. This is an interesting story in itself, and very amusing as Kewley and crew try to offload their ill-gotten gains. But then their ship, the Sincerity, attracts the attention of the Customs, and Kewley is forced to consider the indignity of taking on board paying passengers.
This is divine timing on the part of the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, who needs a ship to go to Tasmania to prove his theory of Divine Refrigeration. His discourse offers the rather surprising argument that the Garden of Eden is to be found within Van Diemen's Land.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 27 Jun. 2000
Format: Hardcover
I found English Passengers to be hilarious, revealing, poignant and shocking but most of all, a masterly example of the use of multiple points of view. As I am a Tasmanian, I am well acquainted with the facts of what happened to the indigenous people and particularly enjoyed the narratives of the governors and their wives. However, the most revealing and enduring section would have to be the wholly authentic letter which the author found in the Tas. Archives office. That is a document which deserves to be more widely known and not only for what it says about the education of indigenous peoples. Wilson's determination to disprove geology reminds me very much of Gosse's 'Father & Son', although Kneale's treatment is much more satirical and ascerbic, of course. Then there is the theme of inland exploration and trade and Manx/Irish/Scots versus English; there is also the preoccupation of the colonies to become as civilised and respectable as possible, through reproducing English villages and towns; there is also the conflict between the patronising Rousseauean theories of indigenous peoples and the assumption that all non whites are ignorant savages at best and quaint children at best. This is best illustrated through Potter's astonishment at Peevay's ability to pursue and pick off the exploration party throughout the west/south west of Tasmania. Kneale's research is very impressive and he was well advised to seek the assistance of Cassandra Pybus who has the ability to cut through much of the denial and extremism of Australian historical study. As I hold great store by Penelope Lively's reviews, it was a good idea of the publishers to print her judgement on the back cover. It persuaded me to part with $35 and I have not regretted it. Two points:1.Read more ›
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