The Lieutenant is a novel about Daniel Rooke, who joins the first penal fleet to Australia as an astronomer hoping to track a comet. While the colony is being established, the governors and leading officers attempt to establish contact with the aboriginal peoples, although both view each other as a threat. Rooke befriends a young aboriginal girl named Tagaran and begins to decipher and document her language, but when a member of the penal colony is killed by an aborigine, Rooke is torn between his friendship with Tagaran and obeying his duty as a marine.
To be honest, I found this book to be kind of forgettable. It took me a while to get drawn into it because I wasn’t too keen on the writing style. I’m not too sure how to describe it. It felt quite basic to me, but not in a stylistic way. The closest I can get is to say that the writing felt unsophisticated, which sounds kind of mean but it did feel a bit ‘young’ to me. Towards the beginning especially, I thought there was quite a lot of exposition and ‘info-dumping’ which could have been handled better. Either these aspects improved throughout, or I just stopped noticing them because I began to enjoy the story a bit more. However I still felt that there wasn’t a lot of substance to the writing or the story itself.
I think the main problem I had with this book is the lack of tension. There were certain scenes (where Rooke was part of the group hunting Warangay for example) which could have been quite dramatic, but I didn’t feel like there was ever any real danger. Rooke had already warned Tagaran, so I wasn’t worried that any of her people would be captured. Then we discover that the mission was really to kill any captives and bring back their heads, but I already knew that they were unlikely to capture anyone, so this kind of fell flat too. More could be made of the fact that Rooke disobeyed orders and so was tried for mutiny, but it’s mentioned almost in passing that he just got on a ship and left. There were all these wasted opportunities to really increase the tension and add some excitement and drama to the story, but Kate Grenville ignored them all and I found it rather frustrating. There wasn’t anything to really make me care because the stakes never felt high enough. I know this was in part based on a true story, but even if she wanted to stick to the basic facts, I think the story telling could have been greatly improved with a more skilful use of the narrative.
It wasn’t a total loss though because the story itself was interesting, even though it could have been made more so, and I was really fascinated to read the whole process of Rooke learning and documenting Tagaran’s language. I was quite captivated by the whole breakdown of their teaching/learning methods, and the logical way which he attempted to conjugate verbs and work out the different tenses etc. Plus I enjoyed seeing Rooke and Tagaran’s friendship developing alongside their language skills, although I was annoyed by references to the possibility that the relationship had sexual undertones. Silk kept implying this to Rooke, which Rooke strenuously denied, and if it had been left at that I’d have been fine with it, but this seemed to happen multiple times which irked me. Tagaran’s a young girl, and their relationship tending towards anything other than just friendship had never occurred to me from the narrative, so I don’t really understand why the reader needed to be assured so often that they were just friends. I know they were just friends, their interactions in the narrative itself made that clear. It’s almost like Kate Grenville thought the reader would have this idea in the back of their mind and so wanted to go out of her way to dispel it, but I didn’t have that idea so why give it to me? I don’t really know why this one thing bothered me so much, but I think it was just another aspect of the storytelling which wasn’t handled as well as it could have been.
All in all, I thought The Lieutenant was fine. I had my issues with it and I would definitely say that it was an average rather than a stand-out book, but on the whole the story itself was fairly interesting. The beginning struggled to hold my attention but it definitely improved throughout, I’m just not sure there’s anything that will particularly stand out in my memory further on down the line, and I don’t feel in a rush to read any of Kate Grenville’s other works.
See previous Book Review featuring Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate.