An excellently quirky, educational, thought-provoking, and often humourous book that avoids being confusing (despite multiple narrators) or off-putting when describing the more shocking aspects of the near extinction of Aborigines in Tasmania and the views of white supremacists. Even the potentially awkward mix of socio-political themes and jolly japes works.
(Not saying more than is on the back cover.)
It is set in the 1800s and opens with the crew of Sincerity from the Isle of Man, intent on petty smuggling, but who end up taking some Englishmen to Tasmania, including a priest with a penchant for geology who thinks he will find the Garden of Eden, and a doctor intent on proving the superiority of white races in scientific terms. In Tasmania, relations between white settlers and local Aborigines are deadly and often shocking, whether those settlers be impoverished seal-hunters or rich and powerful soldiers or officials.
The general events in Tasmania are broadly true. Events on the boat provide a contrasting degree of levity.
A few of the plot twists were annoyingly predictable - but I loved the irony of the ending, plus the final post script, which fully justified the inclusion of some of the more unpleasant aspects in the novel itself.
I lost track of the number of narrators, but each has a distinct voice, and is explicitly introduced. Some tell one small part of the story, while others recur many times. A difficult trick for a writer to make work, but Kneale manages it.
It opens with a philosophical conundrum that defines the book: "Say a man catches a bullet through his skull in somebody's war, so where's the beginning of that?... the day our hero goes marching off to fight... when he's just turned six and sees soldiers striding down the street... that night when a little baby is born?" By extrapolation, who is to blame for the near extinction of the Tasmanian Aborigines?
Conflict and opportunism are at the heart of the book; no one gets on with anyone else (with the general exception of the Manx crew) and everyone is trying to achieve personal success at the expense of others (not generally financial, though). This is often fuelled by self-deceit and the desire to see evidence and patterns where none exists.
Class, science, religion, nationalism, colonialism (paternalism, exploitation), evangelism, culture clashes, racial identity and tension, crime and punishment (redemption, reform), murder, revenge, and genocide are the main themes. Smuggling and survival are minor, but pertinent distractions.
The book is crawling with hypocrites, including the three, very different, main characters. Some are amusing, like Captain Kewley who justifies smuggling as altruistic capitalism, but others, especially Rev Wilson, have few redeeming features, while Peevay's personal history means he starts off in credit with the reader (and for most, probably remains so). Rev Wilson is the worst, though he is an easy target. His modus operandi is pious prayer that demeans and criticises those he dislikes: he always prays for their improvement, rather than his tolerance, whist stating "I am not one to judge", just as he does so.
Captain Kewley does have some redeeming features. In particular, he twice saves enemies, at considerable risk to himself.
Dr Potter's racist "notions" are troubling to read: "The Chinese posses a unique impulse of delight in bright colours, while among the savages of Africa there was a complete absence of the impulse of civilisation." This is partly because of what they say, partly because they are mentioned at such length but most guiltily because he expresses them so ludicrously that it's often hard not to laugh (mainly when he's comparing the Celts, Saxons and Normans). However, people really did (and do) publish such tracts, and the book thoroughly ridicules and refutes such ideas.
Creationists and young Earthers don't come out of this well, so I wouldn't expect them to enjoy it.
Some of the whites genuinely want to help the Aborigines, thinking clothes, crafts, farming and Bible stories will bring salvation, civilisation and happiness.
Others want to expunge all trace of Aboriginal life and have less care for the people than for their own animals.
The Aborigines are given new names: some are Biblical, others almost heretical, but most are deliberately, and often nastily, chosen for reasons that the bearers do not realise. "The older and more exalted of the natives were rewarded with names of quaint grandeur, such as King Alpha... a girl who was dreamy and sad was now Ophelia.. the monstrous female... became Mary, and while this might seem innocent enough, I had little doubt as to which murderous monarch was in Mr Robinson's mind."
One tells an Aborigine "You must speak English now... only English", which is observed by another white as "Thus he displayed... his resolve to bring improvement to the unfortunate creature". A youngster with a newly discovered talent and passion for maths is told "it was neither useful nor practical for him to learn" and is given more Bible instruction instead.
It's not all one-way though: some of the Aborigines are determined to survive, whether in a confrontational way, or from within, by learning about European belief and culture.
Kneale clearly thought carefully about the language he used. He includes a glossary of Manx terms, though I never needed to refer to it, because context made the meanings clear. He also has a caveat at the beginning about Peevay's speech, which is how he imagines an Aboriginal of the time might speak English, given the influence of white settlers and preachers. Personally, I thought the intent was pretty clear, and the echoes of biblical language obvious.
The real skill with language is the way each of the many narrators has a clear personality and self-justifying way of telling their bit of the story.
Examples that caught my eye include:
* A Manx way of using "dream" without a preposition; "A few might have dreamed every penny on a new jacket or boots" and "I dreamed my great-grandfather, Juan, who I never met".
* "Particular words that must never be spoken aboard a Manx boat when she's out at sea", including rabbit, herring, cat, mouse, wind, sun, moon and pig! If someone slips up, they must "shout 'cold iron' and then touch the ship's cold iron as quick as he can".
* On first hearing English, an Aborigine recalls "it never was said properly but was just murmured, like wombat coughing. Now... they hardly are words to me any more but just thinkings that are said".
* Learning English swear words has a pleasingly powerful effect: "Once I said these at Smith, just to see their magic, and it was strong, as he hated me for them very much".
* Peevay's English has a quaint, simple lyrical and somewhat Biblical style. For example:
- "By and by I grew taller and got lustings, so I noticed females in a new way, and their bubbies and fluffs were tidings of joy and filled me with new hungry wanting."
- "Mother was transported with lamentation... [his] getting dead made her even worse... she never would speak to me at all, even for hating."
* "Publication is a powerful thing. It can bring a man all manner of unlooked-for events, making friends and enemies of perfect strangers." Even truer in the days of the internet.
* Suburbs are "houses marooned in fields being an advance colony of ever-spreading London".
* "His Majesty's colony of Van Diemen's land is not intended to reform criminals, but simply to store them, like so much rubbish."
* "There are few things worse than being forgiven, as you never have a chance of answering back."
PS Further thoughts, arising from discussion.
This book immediately reminded me of the first story in Cloud Atlas (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23327001), which I had reread not long before reading this. As it progressed, parallels with Cloud Atlas continued, not just in terms of the period the voyage was set, but in the themes related to exploitation.