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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tasmanian devils indeed
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...
Published on 5 Dec 2000 by Michael Kyriagis

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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very funny, enjoyable read, but not booker prize material.
English Passengers was a thoroughly enjoyable book, but that is about the best I can say of it. Aside from the aboriginal boy and Captian Kewley, the characters are remarkable flat. Additionally, Kneale obviously was too enamoured of his characters to treat them as he needed to to make the point he was trying to make. A book that attempted humour as a vehicle toward...
Published on 18 Oct 2000


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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tasmanian devils indeed, 5 Dec 2000
This review is from: English Passengers (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). Their individual thoughts and perspectives somehow unite by the end to present a damning and cutting opinion about the early convict settlements in Tasmania.
Kneale lets his characters present their points of view as a means of demonstrating the true horrors perpetuated against convicts, settlers and indigenous people alike by the colnial masters. He also maintains a very personal style of writing to slowly reveal his character's thoughts and emotions thereby cleverly showing up the true horrors inflicted in the name of 'progress'.
In particular, I enjoyed the way in which Peevay maintains his voice and fluency throughout (even though it is written as a form of stilted English as Kneale imagines an Aborigine might have used to express his thoughts) whilst the evil Dr Potter descends into madder rantings and bilious commentary as he persists with his racist theories. Coupled with the equally insane descent by the good Reverend Wilson, Kneale's wonderful narrative device demonstrates clearer than any polemic or sermon the absolute folly and misplaced 'goodness' inherent in the colonial mindset as it ran rampage over the indigenous population. His simple story telling and careful construction of the absurd voyage of discovery vividly shows how the catastrophe that affected Tasmania (and by extension Australia) occured.
The book is therefore a subtle and clever dig at Tasmania's (and Australia's) not so illustrious past. It is clear that Kneale has researched his topic very well but without descending into monolgues or the actual specifics about the numerous injustices against both convicts and Aborigines. Yet the book is never morose - the convict protaganists are as feisty and strong as Peevay and his mother. Tragic characters all but not to be pitied. And in highlighting both the folly and cruelty of the convict settlements almost as much as the Aboriginal tragedy, Kneale cleverly displays an even-handedness which cannot be easily disputed or criticised.
"English Passengers" certainly made me think about Australia's past in a fresh light (even though we all should be aware of the Aboriginal genocide in Tasmania) and given its style and plot development, there is a lot to be said for placing the book on school curriculums soon - both in Australia and elsewhere - as a means of trying to reconcile different cultural backgrounds and histories which experienced different but nevertheless devastating results.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars So many different characters to enjoy!, 1 April 2001
This review is from: English Passengers (Hardcover)
I have just finished reading "English Passengers". It took me a while to read it (5 weeks), as I tend to read in bed and fall asleep after a few pages. However, a book like this, which has many diffent voices contributing to it, is perfect for this stop-start sort of reading as you never lose the flow of the story. And what a story it is! I was greatly amused by the Reverend Wilson, touched and saddened by the fate of Peevay and the Palawa, horrified at Dr. Potter and the dreadful ideas he had, given so much credence in the 19th century. Mixed in with these stories was the farce of the Manxmen and their escapes from real and imagined arrest. By the third third of the book, I had given up reading it in bits - I was so intrigued as to how it was all going to end, I read in in a oner! If you have also enjoyed this book, I would recommend "The Birthday Boys" by Beryl Bainbridge, as "English Passengers" reminded me of it a bit. It is about the ill-fated adventure to the South Pole undertaken in 1912 by Captain Scott.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Devilishly good, 13 Feb 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: English Passengers (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. 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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A crucible of 19th century themes, 27 Jun 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: English Passengers (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. Why wasn't this novel launched in Tasmania? (If the answer is that the philistine Tasmanian government wasn't interested, I wouldn't be surprised) 2.Did Peter Kemp of the Sunday Times really use the so-called words, 'scences' and 'dislikeable'? If he did, I hope he won't be invited to provide any more reviews to said paper!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Funny, shocking and thought provoking, 17 April 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: English Passengers (Hardcover)
The narrative charts a journey from England to Tasmania incorporating smuggling, religious zeolots, jumped-up scientists and pigs. At journey's end is the story of the destruction of an entire civilisation. Pacily written, it manages to be a page-turner, laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly disturbing all at once. Thoroughly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars well worth a read, 6 April 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: English Passengers (Hardcover)
really enjoyed this, after the disjointed start, with so many different voices chipping in, you can see how it's all going to come together.
interesting characters and a story that keeps its pace all the way through. excellent stuff.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Isles of man, 25 Mar 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: English Passengers (Hardcover)
As soon as I put the book down I began to miss them all especially Peevay and Capt. Kewley. No ship was ever sailed by a more deserving racketeer. A great read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, 20 Feb 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: English Passengers (Hardcover)
This book was excellent, and I'm not surprised that it won the Whitbred award 2000. Kneale writes in wonderful prose and is extreamly witty at times. I particularly like the constant bickering between the doctor and vicar. A wonderful read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quite simply breathtaking....., 15 Feb 2001
This review is from: English Passengers (Hardcover)
..on various levels. I found this book a sheer delight to read, I could not put it down. The prose was excellent and the storytelling top notch. It was kept alive by the use of the narratives from the perspective of the various characters within this gripping tale.
A great achievement indeed, well done. This book also highlighted the very sad destruction of the Tasmanian Aborignes, very moving.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I could not put it down, 17 May 2000
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This review is from: English Passengers (Hardcover)
I really loved this. The historical background and the "English Passengers" fitted well together.
"Getting into the heads" of these passengers and seeing how they viewed their situation from different perspectives I found really interesting. Particularly because their perspectives were linked so well to the historical period in which they lived. I also enjoyed Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley's sense of humour.
In some respects it was almost like a Boys Own adventure story except that it was based on historical fact. I found it exciting, sad and funny and it certainly opened my eyes to a period of history of which I was unaware. It has left me very keen to visit Tasmania!
The only disappointing thing is that I've read it and I wish I still had it to read!
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English Passengers by Matthew Kneale (Hardcover - 2 Mar 2000)
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