Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2009

The Lieutenant (2007), by Kate Grenville

the-lieutenant The Lieutenant is a deeply satisfying book, even though  it perhaps lacks that elusive quality which made The Secret River so very special. Even now, some years after I read it, I can still recall the rapt attention I gave to Grenville’s prose describing the love of land in The Secret River.  Not an acquisitive, greedy love of land, but rather a feeling of being entranced by its beauty.  Her central character, William Thornhill, a convict whose life experiences made him the most pragmatic of men, is lured into an almost spiritual love for a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River.  secret-river1These are poor words to describe how I felt when I read about the land working its magic on a grubby, insensitive fellow from London, and then his dawning dismay when he realises that the indigenous owners of that land felt as he did.  This irreconcilable quandary embroiled Grenville in some controversy with historians who claimed the high ground over authenticity, but I think she handled this shadow in Australia’s past with honesty and sensitivity.  The Secret River won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; the New South Wales Premier’s Awards for Best Fiction and Best Book; the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Christina Stead Award; and the Nielsen BookData Booksellers Choice Award.   Shortlisted for the Booker, (won by John Banville with The Sea) The Secret River was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award but for reasons I cannot fathom, Roger McDonald won it for Ballad of Desmond Kale.  [Update: I have since revised my opinion of BODK, see my review here].

[Update 13/10/18: there is no review of The Secret River here because I read it before I started blogging, but see Karen’s review at Booker Talk here.]

There are aspects of The Lieutenant which cover the same ground as The Secret River, but this time it is a human relationship which is sacrificed in the clash between civilisations.  It is more about attachment to people than to land, but the quality of the relationship – between a lonely and somewhat aloof young Englishman and a bright,  lively Aboriginal girl of about fourteen – made it harder for me to identify with the characters.

Daniel Rookes is an awkward soul, besotted by mathematics and astronomy and ill-at-ease in the company of others.  His background is undistinguished and only the kindly intervention of a perspicacious teacher, Mrs Bartholomew made it possible for him to attend the Portsmouth Naval Academy where he learned Latin, Greek and mathematics under the patronage of Dr Adair.  He was too poor to buy a commission, but took service in the war which resulted in the loss of the American Colonies.  Rookes then found himself promoted to Ships Astronomer for the venture to New South Wales, thanks to Mr Vickery from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, who had taken an interest in him since he was a seven-year-old intrigued by prime numbers.

Grenville does a very good job of depicting the profound loneliness of a man out of step with his world.  Rookes is discomfited by what he sees of slavery, appalled by the ghastly death of his friend Truby in war, and traumatised by the hanging of a would-be mutineer.  He can’t make conversation, and he prefers to be alone with his books and his observations of the night sky.  These days he would chafe at the obsession with sport and celebrity, but there would be a place for his intelligence somewhere; in the more circumscribed social world of the 18th century there was a complete absence of anyone to share his interests, a situation exacerbated in the fledgling colony.


His only friend is Silk, but their relationship is more comradely than a meeting of the minds.  Rookes finds Silk’s ambition to write a grand narrative about the new colonial enterprise faintly repellent, and he doesn’t like it when he realises that Silk will cheerfully use him as a source if it suits him. He also doesn’t like the way ‘facts’ can be distorted to fit a ‘narrative’ to suit the narrator’s purpose (and I wonder to whom or what Grenville is alluding here?  It has echoes of that unedifying spat with Inga Clendinnen). He worries that Gardiner, also troubled by scruples about the kidnapping of two Aboriginals to establish contact, will suffer the fate of the hanged mutineer and resolves to say nothing.  (Gardiner is whisked off to run the settlement at Norfolk Island, leaving Rookes even more morally isolated.)

Rookes manages to set himself up in splendid isolation, building his observatory high on a hill overlooking the settlement.  He gets away with this shirking of more onerous duties amongst the convicts on the grounds that he is taking observations of an anticipated comet and because the Governor is impressed by his patron, Mr Vickery from the Royal Observatory.  Rookes is nevertheless always aware of the precariousness of his retreat and that he will one day be expected to discharge the duties of a proper redcoat. When that day comes, it is devastating for him.

He befriends a charming, intelligent girl called Tagaran, of the Cadigal People, and she teaches him her language.  Although this is one of the express ambitions of the Governor and his masters back in England, Rookes keeps this linguistic adventure private, and is appalled when Silk discovers what he has been doing and interprets the relationship as sexual.  Tagaran is only about fourteen, and Rookes is a young man (with experience in brothels, lest we might think him gay) but theirs is an entirely innocent meeting of the minds.  Their relationship is enchanting because Grenville ‘s account of it shows a bridge between civilisations as Rookes discovers that learning a language is about more than decoding words, but also concepts, culture and relationships.  As both Tagaran and Rookes borrow from each other’s language and incorporate it into their own, Rookes begins to see the humanity and dignity of the indigenous peoples that he had previously not imagined.

The inevitability of an irreconcilable moment in this meeting of two civilisations lies at the heart of The Lieutenant. Below the idyll on the hill, the settlement is advancing – taking up more land at Rose Hill, and intruding ever further into traditional hunting grounds.  When Brugden, the Governor’s gamekeeper is speared and dies a lingering, painful death, a punitive expedition is mounted.  Rookes is called upon to join it, by his erstwhile friend, Silk, and the young Lieutenant is torn by his notions of loyalty and obedience to the Crown and his emerging scruples about British justice.

He had confronted this dilemma before when Tagaran demanded to be shown how muskets work.  Governor’s Orders were explicit: on no account must the Aborigines be given this information; it is vital for the safety of a poorly defended settlement that they believe that the musket itself is the weapon entire.  Although Rookes acquiesces by showing Tagaran how the powder works, he has his first quarrel with her when he refuses to show her how the ball of shot operates.  She knows he is withholding – and he suspects that she  is using him, perhaps sent by the Elders to find out.  Grenville plays just a little with ambiguity over Rookes’  loyalties here, twisting events to allow him to give Tagaran what she wants but balking at the crucial point.  Was this obedience, or a lack of trust in Tagaran?

But when called upon to join the punitive party, Rookes steps over the line.  He sends for Tagaran, and warns her.  He participates, but in a half-hearted way, deliberately firing wide at retreating natives in the bay.  He squares this with his troubled conscience because he had believed Silk’s reassurances that the enterprise was for a display of military might, not intended to result in casualties, and is relieved when Silk’s well-planned and executed operation fails, due to his intervention.  However, on the return journey he discovers that – contrary to those assurances – Silk was carrying equipment which made it clear that he had planned to return with trophy heads.  This discovery is the catalyst for Rookes to reject all his previous ideas about loyalty: he abandons the expedition and tells the Governor that it was morally wrong.  He is sent back to England to be court-martialled.

The concluding chapter after this decisive event seems a bit lame.  Rookes isn’t hung, and he goes off to take part in campaigns against the slave trade.  (He buys slaves, and sets them free).  As he lies dying of an un-named illness in his old age, we learn that he had married and had children but is now alone, but we learn nothing more about them.  (Considering what an odd-bod he was, it would have been interesting to discover how this diffident and shy young man ever fell in love and married.)  This last chapter seems like an afterthought which betrays Grenville having lost interest in her character once he left Australia – it’s just a tying up of loose ends.

Nevertheless it’s a very fine book, as all Grenville’s books are!

Author: Kate Grenville
Title: The Lieutenant
Publisher: Text Publishing 2008
ISBN: 9781921351785
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Reader’s Feast, $45.00


  1. […] A notable omission is Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant.  […]


  2. […] Lisa over at ANZ Lit Lovers also liked The Lieutenant.  Her (more extensive) review can be read here. […]


  3. I just read Kate Grenville’s “The Secret River” for the first time a few days ago and loved it! I’m now a a big Grenville fan. This one sounds pretty good, too.


    • Do try some of her earlier work too … The Idea of Perfection is wonderful and so is Lilian’s Story.

      Liked by 1 person

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