English Passengers by Matthew Kneale


I first heard English Passengers discussed on an episode of the BBC radio shoe A Good Read and it automatically found its way on to my TBR list.  As always with a book I want to read I went on a frantic search of local charity shops – I am an expert and super speedy at this – and I was successful on my quest.  Another common feature of my charity shop success is that the book spent a fair few months just on the shelf as it takes me forever to get round to reading it.  When choosing my new read a few weeks ago I narrowed it down to three and then did  ‘eenie, meanie, mine, mo’ an old fail safe that I haven’t done since childhood.  I have told myself I will read the other two books next and so far I’ve been true to this as I’m currently reading the second book now. And so I began English Passengers.

It is a book set in two different time periods: 1850s England and Tasmania (or Van Diemens Land) of the 1830s, a narrative choice that makes it clear that both strands will eventually meet up.  The English/Isle of Man side of the narrative focused on a smuggling ship, the Sincerity, and its mission to overload its secret cargo of Tabasco and brandy.  Due to some tricky incidents at English customs, the ship – originally from the Isle of Man – is forced to take on board some English passengers who are on their way to Tasmania in the search for the Garden of Eden.  These passengers include the Reverend Wilson, a botanist called Renshaw and Doctor Potterq, who has a keen interest in racial profiling.  The Tasmanian part of the narrative largely focuses on Peevay, an aboriginal tribe member whose mother was raped by a white man, instantly making him an outcast from both parts of society.  Throughout the novel we hear from numberous different characters in the build up to both narrative strands joining together. 

At first I was unsure about English Passengers; it begins with the smuggling ship and to be honest I didn’t have much interest in this. I was starting to think I had made the wrong reading choice for that particular moment in my life when the Tasmanian part of the narrative kicked in and I was hooked.  I found this the most gripping part of the entire narrative.  There are just so many harrowing moments: from the description of Peevay looking at his reflection in a lake for the first time and believing he is a monster as he is mixed race to the unpresidented slaughter of an entire tribe of aboriginals on one of the beaches, it is just shocking that they received this type of brutality.  I was aware that this type of massacre existed, especially after visiting various museums when I was in Australia, but it didn’t make it any less appalling to read about.  The sheer arrogance of the British colonies is unbelievable, especially when they essentially round up all of the aboriginals and stick them on Flinders Islamd to attempt to ‘civilise’ them, but the reality is they watch them die out; an event that, along with so many others in the novel, is based on real life.  It just amazes me that this lack of understanding for other cultures is something that is still so relevant today (especially as I’m reading a lot in the news about America this morning) and it is this part of the narrative that I found the most interesting and engaging.  Although that being said the racist Doctor Potter has the best comeuppance at the end of the novel, possibly one of the best fates of a character I have ever read about.  

For me this was an interesting, engaging and easy to read novel, although I was pretty much just living for the moments in Tasmania as these were by far the most interesting and the bits that made me want to go and discover other books about similar parts of history.  And for me that is one of my favourite things about reading. 

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