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on 1 May 2002
This suberbly written book takes quite a bit of effort to get into, but is well worth persevering. I was warned that the large number of seemingly unrelated storytellers (including Peevay, an Aborigine boy) would be quite hard to cope with at first. Once you get past this hurdle, however, Kneale gives brilliant simultaneous insights into a number of facinating worlds that are long gone. An age of exploration is displayed in parallel with the striking image of brutality that the European settlers portray, and the situation of the confused but defiant surviving groups of Aborigines.
The book really brings home the sheer arrogance of the settlers of that time, and you cannot help but feel a sense of profound pity at the extinction of a unique people. This, of course is not the first book that has done this, but Kneale's brilliant narrative style serves to really underline the different motives behind the settlers. Some cannot see any point in even giving the 'savages' a life, and others held a wish to preserve the culture (even if it was primarily with a concern for the image of Britain).This serious aspect is intertwined with a brilliant story of adventure that ends with a thriller-like sequence of events. The different threads of the brilliant (and in some cases repulsive) characters all tie together in a very satisfying manner. The true meaning of a page turner.
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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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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 15 November 2001
This is an amazing novel which seems to encompass an entire era, bringing in its social, religious and racial beliefs. The characterisation is superb, especially the central characters of Kewley, Peavey and Potter. It is astonishing how Matthew Neale manages to cover such a huge canvass and yet bring such a master work to such a satisfying conclusion. If you want an unusual, mind changing and thought provoking novel which is also tragic and funny then don't miss this wonderful book.
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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 March 2002
I was determined to stick with the book through the first 50-60 pages! Why? Because, although I felt the number of characters being used to tell the story, not to mention the constant flashbacks, rather demanding, I was amused by the blissful ignorance of the Reverand Wilson. I spent 10 years at sea, sometimes stuck on voyages with people I didn't particularly like yet felt compelled to tolerate for the purposes of harmony on this and future voyages. So when it became clear that a motley collection of "English Passengers" were to end up on Captain Kewley's ship, stuck with each other for the duration of a long trip to Tasmania, I was determined to see this voyage through. I suspected that some kind of poetic justice was to be served on the least likeable characters, of a sort I was unable to dish out to my own shipmates! As the story developed, my attitude to some of the characters changed. The real tragedy of course is in the fate of the Aboriginal Tasmanians. After all his experiences, it is the Aborigine Peevay who I had most sympathy for. Throughout, the story is funny, brutal and above all entertaining. I confess to rejoicing in the fate of some of the characters...
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VINE VOICEon 27 July 2003
English Passengers is an engrossing ripping yarn of a good book. It will keep you gripped from page one. It's as much about empire and race and seafaring as it is a comedy of manners.
Its scope is astonishing. Quite how and for how long it took Matthew Kneale to write such a witty and elegant book defies reason. His prose is measured with each line and chapter brillaintly crafted. Populated with irksome characters and wonderful plots and sub plots bringing them all together, you'll laugh and be disturbed in equal measure.
Essentially Kneale is lambasting British imperialism in the 19th century as unforgiving and by its very nature, rascist and unsympathetic to the conquered. The main characters without a shred of decency or empathy outside of their own driven egos adds the comic weight to the story. Wilson, the Yorkshire vicar who discovers geology and makes a case for the garden of eden being located in Tasmania, Potter the red headed doctor out to prove a case for the destiny of nations and racial stereotyping, Peevay the aborigine uprooted from his land by marauding white men and Kewley, the captain of a ship set to bring all to their nemesis; the pretexts are extravagant but believable.
No wonder English Passengers won the Book of the Year as it's a big book in every sense. But it's also a lot of fun. You'll be hard pushed to read a more accomplished book than this.
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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 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 28 October 2001
An amazing achievement. Kneale has produced a wonderful book. Full of surprises, it entwines humour with pathos and historical facts. The voices are caricatures of Victorians which one reviewer suggests is a negative apsect, but that is what makes the characters so interesting. A caricature highlights the facets of character that set individuals apart from one another. My only criticism is that I kept wanting to look at maps of where this was taking place, and I don't carry atlases when I travel. That's the only reason I didn't give it 5 stars.
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