William Dawes is one of the first Englishmen to set foot on Australia. He's been sent to set up an astrological observatory to study the skies in the southern hemisphere. He travels on the first convict ship sent out and the story encompasses the clearing of the land and the building of a settlement in what is later to become the city of Sydney. William is a moral individual and he doesn't agree with the cruelty and callousness with which the convicts are treated, still less with the way the native people are regarded as ignorant, savage children who can be patronised and brutalised with impunity.
The book has a double focus - partly on William and partly on modern-day Stephen who is writing Dawes' story after coming to grief as a deputy head in a comprehensive school - his politics took over and the local press did the rest as his experimental ideas of equality between children and teachers failed dismally.
Stephen's wife is Olla, an ex-chambermaid and refugee from Poland. Olla wants only children, house, security but her children are born handicapped. Timothy, her first, dies after a few months, but her second, Daniel, she feels sure will live. Her attitude to Daniel is extraordinary. Under the guise of his disability Olla senses extra-sensory powers and when brain activity much stronger than expected is detected in Daniel it seems she might be right to have such faith. But are we, as readers, expected to believe that the child is something special? I don't think so. Olla is clearly not all there, but at the same time her belief in Daniel is heroic - against the odds she seems to have succeeded in drawing more from him than could ever have been expected, given his disabilities.
Stephen, meanwhile, has become obsessed by his subject - Australia - and off he goes to drive through the outback - only to break down in the middle of nowhere and, presumably (this isn't made clear), perish.
William Dawes was a real person; there are records of his work in helping to create the first Australian settlement. He later returned to England and went off (with a different wife each time) to teach natives, first in Sierra Leone and then to Antigua.
What is the point of these very different but equally absorbing plot lines? Good intentions may not end in goodness; ignorant women might be wiser than they seem - these at any rate seem to be the themes that unite the two plots. The story lines all had something different to say - William Dawes' was easily the most enjoyable, even though it was fraught with privation and struggle. Stephen's story was about the disappointed man's struggle to live by his ideals and linked well with Dawes' self-discoveries in Australia. Olla's was the most difficult to take since her faith seemed ludicrous in the face of medical reality and any vindication was not really forthcoming. The mystical fancies of an otherwise excellent writer failed, here, to match up to her narrative drive. Nevertheless, this is a very engaging book with an impressive range. One might say, you get two novels in one book, admirably compressed and leaving nothing out.
I bought this book as I got interested in the aborigines after reading ' The Secret River' which was very good. This book would have been better I think as 2 separate stories rather than trying to weave backwards and forwards between two different times. I have given 2 stars because the bit set in australia in the past was quite good, but the present day bit was pretty irritating and unengaging. Reading other reviews, I am wondering if we were reading the same book.
I enjoyed this a lot. The story of William, the lead character, is beautifully told, though that of Stephen (his descendent) a little less so. He evokes the hardship of the first landings very well, and William's emotional and psychological struggles bind the narrative really well. Not perfect by any means, but well worth a read both as a good yarn and a history lesson.
I chose this book because I had recently read The Testament of Jessie Lamb. I had loved it so wanted to read more of Rogers' work. I read it on my phone which I will never do again because it took me months to finish. I will say no more than there are times it seemed frustrating but if I had read it over a few days, I'd have understood sooner. It's excellent.