A review of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers

In 1857, Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley decides to take his boat, the Sincerity, on a little jaunt from the Isle of Mann, to Maldon. Perhaps he wasn’t really selling salted Herring. However, his little voyage turns into something entirely different, leading Kewley and his crew of quirky Manxman (people from the Isle of Mann) on a trip across the world and back, with some rather unusual passengers in search of the original site of the Garden of Eden in Tasmania.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

English Passengers
By Matthew Kneale
Penguin Books Australia, April 2001
First published Hamish Hamilton UK, 2000
ISBN: 0 14028521-0

In 1857, Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley decides to take his boat, the Sincerity, on a little jaunt from the Isle of Mann, to Maldon. Perhaps he wasn’t really selling salted Herring. However, his little voyage turns into something entirely different, leading Kewley and his crew of quirky Manxman (people from the Isle of Mann) on a trip across the world and back, with some rather unusual passengers in search of the original site of the Garden of Eden in Tasmania. English Passengers is told in first person narrative monologues or narratives, along with a few book excerpts and letters, told from the perspective of different characters in the story, which moves the reader forward in time between England, the voyage, and life in Tasmania, from Port Arthur, to the small islands around Tasmania. The story itself is very well written, with a clarity of prose that evokes life in the early colonial days of Australia, aboriginal suffering, convict pain and rebellion, class, prejudice, fear, and joy, while remaining funny, historically accurate, and always easy to read and compelling. The style of the narrative draws the reader into characters which are original, generally believable, and fascinating, from the half crazed (and later wholly crazed) Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, whose desire for fame and ecclesiastical glory form the impetus for the journey; the glory seeking bigot Dr Thomas Potter, whose book on “Types”, Destiny of Nations, becomes a prefigurement of the theories which later motivated Hitler; Jack Harp, the vicious convict who begins a small scale war of hatred between black and white; the well meaning Captain Kewley, a host of minor but fascinating figures from the Manxmen themselves, to the wives, governors, and other passengers, and one of the stories main heroes, the aboriginal Peevay, whose own story is a kind of novel in itself. Peevay’s story is entertaining from a fictional perspective, as he wavers between a black and white world; the need for his cold warrior mother’s love, and for the “cherishings”, of some of the white men he comes into contact with, but it is also a poignant reminder of how the aborigines were mostly wiped out during early settlement in Tasmania, and some of the absurd notions surrounding, and foisted upon them. His voice is an eloquent one, and despite Kneale’s initial qualification of the likely reality of his words, Peevay provides some of the most moving passages in the book, such as when he describes his half brother Tayalea’s demise: “he was like some fellow who is snared between his awake and his dreamings, and is pulled by both, stronger and stronger, never knowing what is true, till he is torn like paper. Tear got too big, so he jumped.”

The meaning of the book is serious and important, taking historical fact, and the extraordinary and all but lost linguistic beauty of the Manx, and combining it with an unerring sense of humour in the relationships between characters, and a strong fictional plot. Kneale studied History at Oxford University before taking up fiction writing, and his exacting research makes the tale historically interesting, and educational, as well as entertaining. The major themes of the novel are threaded throughout the story, tying the many characters and pieces in the tale together, such as hatred and bigamy versus open mindedness and love; the “atheisms of geology” versus religious fanaticism; false versus true morality, and appearances versus deeper reality. The ending of the story is superb, a fine twist, which ties the story together perfectly, and provides a lovely kind of final justice, even if it hints at something uglier which will form an important historical force. English Passengers is a wonderful, fast moving, fascinating story which will appeal to all readers, from the most pompous to the most populist.

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