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. Wilson has been fired up by the writings of Darwinists, who believe that the Bible is not to be taken literally when it comes to the question of Genesis and the Origins of Species. Unfortunately, Wilson's sponsor is the infantile entrepreneur Jonah Childs whose notion of a good idea would be to use wallabies as pack animals. Childs' judgement seems lacking when he chooses a rather lacklustre botanist for the trip, and a rather too eager volunteer as ship's surgeon in the shape of the odious Doctor Potter. It doesn't take long for Wilson and Potter to realise that they are natural enemies, and it seems that we could be in for a battle of the survival of the fittest, as each take turns to try to convert Kewley's crew. Try as he might, Kewley is unable to dump his passengers, so off into the New World they sail.
The book also goes back in time to the 1820s to present Peevay's narration. Peevay is a Tasmanian Aborigine who relates how the 'ghosts' take over the land of his people, and drive them to extinction. He is the product of a rape: his mother was snatched by a white seal hunter and imprisoned on his island. She escaped, but is forever haunted by the seething hatred she feels for the man who did that to her. Much of Peevay's early life has been without both his mother and his father. When his mother rejects him due to his mixed blood, Peevay cannot help but yearn for his father. Peevay's jealousy is roused when Mother lavishes affection on his weakly half-brother Tayaleah. Soon the ghosts launch the notorious Black Line. In the event of its ludicrous failure, the Tasmanian Aborigines are dispatched to Flinders Island under the protection of an Angel of Death: Robson. To the casual observer, a novel full of individual narrators might be a nightmare to navigate, but Kneale is a superb Captain. It helps that his characters are so vital, so engaging to read, even if they do write the vilest of polemics, as Potter does. It could seem that this is an awful mishmash to put into one novel. However, Kneale's thinking is always quite stimulating and naturalistic. From my background reading, it looks as though Kneale's not the first author to have approached Tasmania from the perspective of the Garden of Eden: Brian Castro's novel 'Drift' had the 'Intercostals' sealer McGann stealing Pallawah women, utilizing the analogy of Adam and Eve.
Although Kneale employs locations and institutions exceptionally well, I was a bit disappointed that he didn't use the real names of the historical figures. Governor George Alder was possibly the historic Governor George Arthur; Robson was based on 'bricklayer' George Augustus Robinson. However, this gives Kneale a necessary dramatic license: this is a very entertaining book after all. In his epilogue Kneale mentions that the odious Doctor Potter was based on the real life 'disgraced' surgeon Robert Knox (who, whilst in Edinburgh, employed the notoriously work-shy Burke and Hare - why then didn't Channel 4's Booker prize pundit Ian Rankin choose this novel as his favourite?!!). It's shocking that the notions of such a vile man should ever have been taken seriously after that disreputable scandal. However, although the genocide of the Tasmanian Aborigines is shocking in 'English Passengers', the real life stories of Truganini and William Lanney are even more so. As it is also sickening to see Darwin quote from Knox in 'The Descent of Man' and Darwin's own thoughts on the Tasmanian Aborigines. Yet Kneale is such a skilful novelist that you cannot help but feel some pity towards the deluded Wilson and Potter. Matthew Kneale comes from the Evelyn Waugh school of black comedy, with the added bonus that he's merciless to the evils of racism. Unlike many other literary novelists this year, Matthew Kneale hasn't put a foot wrong in his travails.