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on 23 September 2001
English Passengers is one of the best books I've read in a while. Told through the eyes of it's various protagonists, it combines adventure and slapstick on the one hand and high drama on the other. The acute and shameful ignorance of the English settlers in nineteenth century Austrailia is highlighted in the journals of Dr Potter, a racial theorist, and his arch enemy the Reverend Wilson, who is convinced that he's on a divine mission to locate the Garden of Eden. They unwittingly charter a crew of amateur smugglers in order to reach Tasmania, which turns out not to be the Utopia they'd imagined, but a desolate, brutalised colony in which almost the entire native population has been wiped out. Peevay, an aborigine whose mother was kipnapped and raped by an escaped convict, charts the decline of his people with stoicism and compassion, that is, until Dr Potter's experiments drive him to seek revenge.
This is a beautifully observed book that races along at cracking pace. Its highly entertaining and thought-provoking. Safe to say, everyone gets their just desserts. I highly recommend it.
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on 17 May 2001
There has been some superb contemporary fiction published in the last year, but English Passengers is by far the best. Matthew Kneale manages to capture and portray the collosal arrogance that was British Imperialism without using any omniscient authorial interference. Instead, his English characters hang themselves with every word they utter in a clever use of irony and the first person narrative. The chapter were Reverend Wilson writes that he is 'as suited to this outdoors life as any native aborigine' and then goes on to describe how he is waited upon hand and foot down to other people washing the pots and packing the tents, is especially funny.
The portrayl of British arrogance is not, by any means, the only striking thing about this book, but it is what caught my attention and made me laugh the most, perhaps because you can still see it today, especially in the present political climate. I would recommend this book to anyone. Read it, you won't be disappointed.
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on 16 April 2017
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on 11 February 2003
This magnificent ensemble piece, crafted beautifully by Matthew Kneale, tells the tale of a desperate clergyman attempting to prove the existence of the Garden of Eden (and, by implication, the central proposition of his own religious belief) in the face of an ever more secular society. In order to execute this doomed adventure he enlists the assistance of the incredible Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley along with his ragamuffin crew and duplicitous ship: Sincerity. Along for the ride is the Reverend's bigoted friend and surgeon, Dr Potter, who is seeking to prove his theory on the superiority of the Saxon race. Awaiting the arrival of this crew of half-wits, liars and thieves is the unwitting Peevay, whose life is about to be turned upside down and who will serve as a metaphor for the destruction wrought on foreign lands by the English's relentless Empire building.
The most charming element of this novel is in the characterization. Kneale tells the tale skillfully through the first-person narrative of each of his main characters, allowing the peculiarities of their personality to come out. The Captain steals the show, with his determined stoicism and dislike of the English; indeed, all of the Manx crew are wicked delights. The Reverend's piety is the foil to the Captain's cynicism and his perpetual dithering and hand-wringing does little to endear him to his companions.
This is a romp across the high-seas which leaves the taste of salt water in the mouth and a yearning for weevil biscuits. Although it is great fun it is also a historical polemic, however, the reader never feels subjected to sermonizing because the message is delivered so subtly, wrapped in humor.
I was moved to read this novel when it beat Zadie Smith's 'Whit Teeth' to the Whitbread prize; I couldn't believe that a bolder, better and funnier novel could have been written that year, but I was wrong. Although I loved 'White Teeth' the judges got it right: Mathew Kneale deserves his victory for this masterpiece.
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on 5 December 2000
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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VINE VOICEon 28 February 2004
There I was, in my local library, mooching about looking for a book to while away those boring Tube journeys, when I chanced across a copy of this novel. I opened the book and read the first few pages. Although "English Passengers" has something of a slow start plot-wise, I was nevertheless hooked by Matthew Kneale's superb writing - and decided to give this book a whirl. I was very glad I did.
The novel is essentially two parallel stories. One is of several English passengers aboard a Manx smuggling ship, bound for Tasmania, in search of the Biblical Garden of Eden. The other is of a Tasmanian Aborigine named Peevay, who has been born as the result of his mother's rape by a white man. These characters eventually cross paths (leading to a truly gripping finale), but along the way we learn a lot more about all of them, as well as about the history of Tasmania.
This novel is really quite brilliant. Kneale employs the tactic of having many different narrators tell the story, each from their own viewpoint. Every voice he uses - white, black, male, female, English, Tasmanian - is utterly convincing, and despite all these different storytellers, the novel doesn't become confusing or disordered, as you might expect - it is compelling stuff throughout. And it's not simply entertainment - this tale will get you thinking. It's been a long time since I have seriously thought about a book when not reading it; I found my thoughts kept going back to this novel and its characters - what would happen next, how it would end, not to mention the issues it raises.
On one of those Tube journeys I try to while away with fiction, a totally random guy started telling me, and his girlfriend who was sitting next to him, what a great book it was I was reading, and how it was one of his favourites. "English Passengers" is now one of my favourite novels, too. It's not only the best book I have read in quite some time, but probably one of the best I have ever read. This is not the kind of novel which has a good style but a boring plot, or which has some great writing but a few sections that are boring and difficult to get through - it has a great, brilliantly original storyline, and convincing and intriguing characters, and is superb throughout. There are some great touches of humour as well as some genuinely moving moments.
I really cannot recommend this novel highly enough - it is, quite simply, outstanding.
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on 29 October 2014
Bit of a random choice but on the back of reading a biography of Charles Darwin so it made, at first, an interesting companion peice to that. It is clever. You can feel the cleverness. But, written from the perspective of so many you only have the main protagonists as decently drawn characters and everyone else just there to provide narrative flow. It does definitely drag at times and as some of what happens is so heavily signposted it seems unnecessarily slow. However, lots of interesting points, some wit, some food for thought
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on 12 February 2002
Through Dr. Thomas Potter's repellent and unscientific racial theories and the Rev. Geoffrey Wilson's proud and self-centred Christianity, the ugly spirit of imperialism is illustrated with sharp and deadly irony in Matthew Kneale's fine novel. While the petty feuds that thrive in the British expatriate community are neatly reflected in the lives of the aborigines, the disastrously misguided forces of "civilization" prove to be the most destructive influences in action as the British pioneers use the weapons of violence, ignorance and religion to subjugate and destroy the native population.
Superbly written, Kneales' novel entertains even more than it informs. I'd recommend this book heartily to anybody.
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on 13 November 2002
This book has such an unusual plot that you have to read it to see if anyone could possibly create a work of fiction out of it. Not only does the author succeed admirably, he creates a cast of characters so varied that no one could get bored. The native characters from Tasmania are extremely well drawn and rewarding. It is truly a remarkable achievement that the author is able to make the reader feel completely at one with such an alien culture. He rises above the cultural and physical situation of the people to make us all recognise the common humanity we share and the cruelty that can be brought about by indifference to that fact.
In addition he has created a wonderfully funny situation in the central 'search' of the book, but even this turns to tragedy in the end. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it probably invoked every other emotion in between.
One of the most comprehensive and fascinating tales I have ever read. Thoroughly recommended.
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on 1 June 2007
This is a superb book. At first I found the disparate but ever-converging lines of narrative of different characters annoying but by the end, as they started to coalesce, it was all I could do to get some sleep rather than keep on with it! The characters are superbly embodied by the prose that their "diary entries" use, from the clipped prose of the malevolent racist doctor to the brutal reminiscence of the convict rapist whose actions kick the entire tale into motion. The effortless movement between people's differeing narrative and prose styles, and chronological periods, is extremely impressive - an incredibly good read, and an important testament to Britain's savage attack then callous indifference towards a dying people. Highly recommended.
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