March 2000

A topsy-turvy seafaring tale

By Matthew Kneale
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If, as Virginia Woolf said, the novel is an art form essentially about character, this one sure meets the quantity test. Kneale tells his story from the standpoint of 20 or so Victorian narrators: a Manx sea captain, a half-breed Tasmanian aborigine, his homicidal mother, a proto-Nazi physician, several demented evangelical clergymen, hardened convicts and their guards.

The tale begins near the Isle of Man during a smuggling run that goes enough awry and sends the Manx sailors on a charter to Tasmania. Accompanying them on the voyage is a barmy parson looking for the Garden of Eden and his surgeon fellow explorer who is doing his unwitting best to anticipate the philosophy of Mein Kampf. Meanwhile, the aborigines of Tasmania are chased by murderous rapist convicts across their homeland, setting the two plot strands of the novel to coincide in the mountains of Tasmania.

There is a lot to like about this novel. Kneale shows his erudition in a number of fields like Tasmanian history, the Manx dialect, aboriginal psychology, and the crackpot racist theories of a mid-19th century physician. His handling of tone, too, is deft. The unrelenting tragedy of the aboriginal genocide is considerably lightened by the perfect absurdity of the Englishmen seeking the Garden of Eden in Tasmania. Think Patrick O'Brian meets A Confederacy of Dunces.

The book is so colorful and sweeping, it is easy to overlook some of its deeper underpinnings. The English colonizers, including the convicts, are without exception cruel and arrogant (at least until they lose their sanity). So here, at the high tide of the British empire, are the despised conquerors. But look deeper: Dr. Potter is on the expedition because he is interested in the racial determination of history, an alternative view to the economic determination theories Marx was propounding about the same time. These two views, of course, have been the miserable standards under which so much blood has been shed in the 20th century. The irony of the novel is that Kneale tells his tale, too, with a historical determination. Just about everything that can happen does happen, but none of it seems outlandish or unlikely. This is the mark of a skilled writer who knows his stuff. Tell us more.

John Foster is an attorney in Columbia, South Carolina.

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English Passengers

English Passengers

By Matthew Kneale
ISBN 9780385497435

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