- by Carol Standish
It feels a little bit like cheating for a reviewer to quote a flattering comment included by the wily publisher in the front of a book, but in this particular case, Nicholas Shakespeare stole the words right out of my mouth. “English Passengers,” he said, “is what fiction ought to be: ambitious, narrative-driven, with a story and a quest we don’t mind going on.” And it’s a great deal more.
English Passengers (Anchor Books, 446 pp, $14) is certainly ambitious. British author, Matthew Kneale, whose American debut this book is, tells his tale through the voices of over 20 different characters and several timelines stretching between 1820 and 1870. Among the stand-outs are Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, a wily sea-going smuggler of French brandy (and other taxable sundries) from the Isle of Man, The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, an amateur geologist, Dr. Thomas Potter, a mad scientist of a physician bent on categorizing all human abilities according to nationality, and the English-speaking aboriginal, Peevay. Each of these main voices is piercingly distinctive and compellingly drawn.
Seat of the pants strategist, Kewley, and his crew of Manxmen have been nearly busted by government revenue-ers and threatened with incarceration in dreaded London-town even though no contraband has been found (the Sincerity sports a double hull). As an alternative to a more thorough search and possible jail time, Kewley opts to charter the Sincerity to the reverend, the doctor and a spoiled young remittance man, the third member of a variously deluded team bent on discovering the Garden of Eden in Tasmania.
One of the many great pleasures of this novel is the dim view that the Manxmen, especially Captain Kewley, take of the Englishmen. “Strange articles of passengers they were, too. Truly you never did see such a clever and pestful trio as these, all disagreeing with themselves and taking their great clever brains for a little stroll about the deck.”
In the meantime back in Tasmania, Peevay, having learned to step lively to elude the invading settlers, isn’t too sure about the English either. Juxtaposed to the search for Eden by the English passengers, Kewleys many botched attempts to unload his illegal wares and the machinations of the English colonial authority in Tasmania, are Peevay’s struggles just to stay alive. A half-breed, Peevay hangs on the edge of his world befriended by few and often alone. Eventually he is re-united with a straggling band of his people led by his warrior mother (who has her own grizzly story). Together they are herded onto a desolate island off the coast where they endure an English imposed civilizing process. Peevay matter-of-factly refers to the island prison as “the dying place.” Things are looking bleak at this point in the story—but Kneale has 200 more pages of twists and surprises.
The novel is constructed from the reports, diaries and musings of these and other characters. British government, prison and army officers, (and occasionally their wives), remittance men, men of the cloth, farmers, hunters, and sealers, the Manx crew of the Sincerity, the citizens of Peel City and various members of Tasmania’s aboriginal population—86 entries in all—weave the complex tale. Every meticulously drawn character (and his/her private agenda or mania) is intricately revealed through Kneale’s masterful control of language.
As for the fact based plot (at least the Tasmanian strand), the frictions resulting from the mixed and matched characters inexorably determine future action like the best picture puzzle. Brilliantly plotted, full of breathless action and suspense, gobs of black humor, a thick layer of clever ironies and a delicious verbal skill and grace, this novel is one of the best historical novels ever. It can also be intelligently enjoyed as both a satire of and a polemic for our times.