The Barnes & Noble Review
In the late 1850s, a crew of Manx smugglers led by a team of eccentric British adventurers set out on the high seas in search of the fabled Garden of Eden (which they believe to be in Tasmania). For any other storyteller, that much alone would be a sufficient basis for a novel. But for British author Matthew Kneale, who is himself crossing the seas with a powerful American debut in English Passengers, that much isn't even the beginning of the story.
The beginning of Kneale's story might be said to take place in Tasmania (then called Van Diemen's Land), where the British colonials' efforts to relocate, contain, and "civilize" the island's aboriginal tribes have reached genocidal proportions. Or, perhaps the story begins decades earlier than that, in 1820, when a hardened seal-hunter kidnaps a native woman and holds her in bondage on his island home just off the shore of Van Diemen's Land. But where and when do all of these stories really begin, and where do they end? As much of a Chinese puzzle box as it is a roving and spirited epic, English Passengers succeeds in being as intelligent as it is suspenseful, and as sharp-witted and clever as it is morally earnest and emotionally precise.
Not unlike the structure of the novel as a whole, the Manxmen's ship, Sincerity, is itself a Chinese puzzle of sorts, having been built with two separate hulls, one inside the other. After failing in several legitimate business endeavors, Captain Illiam Killian Kewley decides to return to the profession at which his great-grandfather Juan Kewley had prospered: smuggling brandy and tobacco. Plagued by bad luck, Kewley and his crew are quickly intercepted by British Customs (who are suspicious but unable to locate the contraband within the secret hold of the ship), and seeing no other way out of their predicament, Kewley offers the Sincerity up for charter. Among their passengers are two adventurers (and as fate would have it, egotistic rivals): Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, a vicar and dilettante geologist who believes that the Garden of Eden is to be discovered in the wilds of Van Diemen's Land, and Dr. Thomas Potter, a scientist with ulterior motives in joining the expedition. Kewley hopes to unload the Sincerity's cargo -- and likewise its passengers -- in a nearby port, but pirates, customs cutters, and a fair bit of foul weather send them on the run to the other side of the globe, where they are swept up by an unpredictable twist of fate.
But this journey is only one thread of many in English Passengers, which is told in the voices of no fewer than 20 narrators from different times and places, each distinct and fully developed no matter how brief their appearances. While one might expect this narrative style to be distracting, Kneale weaves its multitude of voices together seamlessly, even magically. Each character has an unmistakable trajectory, and while the reader could never suspect what truly surprising destination Kneale has imagined for the many story lines, each voice adds to a mounting suspense, making this complex novel almost impossible to put down.
Although in the end they prove themselves to be more significant than mere comic relief, the misadventures of those aboard the Sincerity do serve a dual purpose for much of the novel. They ground the reader in a present time of action, while lightening the psychic burden of the parallel story lines set in Tasmania. Here, we meet Peevay, a clever and determined character born when the first whites appeared on his tribe's homeland, who describes the massacres and hardships his tribe faces as it resists the settlers' attempts to force it from its land. But whether told from the perspectives of the aborigines themselves, or from the points of view of various colonials, each narrative inevitably bears witness to the horrifyingly rapid decline in the native population. Elsewhere on the island, residents of a penal colony describe in detail the attempts of the prison officials to reform the convicts through a methodology that proves so dehumanizing, the narratives forge a poignant parallel to the colonials' attitudes toward the natives.
Perhaps the most disturbing of all the voices in English Passengers is that of Dr. Potter, whose narrative is contained within scrupulously kept journals that reveal the true motives of his journey to Van Diemen's Land. He seeks evidence to support his "notions" regarding the races of men, or "types," to prove each race of people to be of a different species, each species bearing specific traits and characteristics of higher and lower orders. For the most part, Potter's jottings are admittedly laughable -- littered with unnecessary abbreviations and irrelevant observations, and succeeding only in being glaringly unscientific and simply egotistical at best. For instance, he often uses his "notions" as a means to privately insult his traveling companions, whom he deems inferior to himself (denoted as "self") -- especially Reverend Wilson, of whom he writes, "Wilson in sitting room when self returned to lodging house, giving self strangest + most malevolent look. Self beginning to wonder if he actually losing his sanity, especially after his scheming to prevent self joining he + Renshaw to dine with col. Rider (though evening proved dull enough). Dementia = leading characteristic of Norman Type, indicating characteristic decadence and depravity? Matter = v. important re. notions. For moment, however, self have little time to study he, as chief concern = specimens."
But ultimately, the casual nature of Potter's "notions" shed a perverse light on the fate of Europe in the next century. Potter continually makes reference to a "future great conflagration of nations as World = embroiled in years of conflict, war + destruction etc. etc." and is at work on a manuscript titled "The destiny of Nations: being a consideration upon the different strengths and characteristics of the many races and types of man, and the likely consequences of their future struggles." Although his interpretation of events would vastly differ from the sensibilities of this novel, Potter's narrative raises the significance of the Tasmanian natives' struggle to a new level, for their fate foreshadows the genocide and world wars to come in the 20th century.
It is amazing that Matthew Kneale pulls all this off, seemingly without effort. English Passengers is, at its heart, a profound work of extraordinary sensitivity and emotion, historical accuracy, and astounding narrative complexity. But like the Sincerity, this book is cleverly disguised; it sets sail in your imagination as an enormously entertaining, unforgettable, and yes, sometimes even hilarious read.
Elise Vogel is a freelance writer living in New York City.
At first glance it looks like any other hefty work of historical fiction, but inside it lies a slimmer, more subversive, story.
Although it contains much that is harrowing, English Passengers is also often hilarious. Tart wit generates caustically funny scenes.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The brutal hand of British imperialism provides the foundation for this broad historical swashbuckler about the English colonization of Tasmania in the early and mid-19th century. U.K. author Kneale debuts stateside with this lengthy novel of hapless smugglers, desperate convicts, simpering bureaucrats, mad vicars and displaced aborigines. The English passengers are the Reverend Wilson, a vicar determined to prove that Tasmania was the site of the original Garden of Eden, and Doctor Potter, a ruthless scientist equally determined to prove Wilson wrong and gain fame in the victory. They're on their way to Tasmania aboard the good ship Sincerity, commanded by Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, a high-seas smuggler and rascal of renown. This is an unpleasant voyage for everyone, especially Kewley, for he has been forced to charter his ship in order to escape punishment for dodging customs duties on his illicit cargoes. Storms, pirates and foul tempers, however, are just the prelude to the hardships that await everyone when they land in Tasmania. British self-righteousness in forcing civilization and Christianity on the aborigines causes wholesale slaughter and subjugation of the islanders, and the natives are more than just restless. Wilson and Potter's overland expedition is guided by Peevay, a wily aborigine not about to knuckle under to the white man. Of course, the expedition is a bloody disaster. Murder, madness, betrayal, mutiny and shipwreck spice up the action and provide intricate plot twists with surprising and satisfying resolutions, particularly for Captain Kewley. This rich tale is told by 20 different voices skipping back and forth across the years, but somehow Kneale manages to keep the reader from becoming confused. Kneale's careful research and colorful storytelling result in an impressive epic. BOMC featured selection. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
It's 1857, and these "English passengers" are bound for Tasmania (they think it's the Garden of Eden) aboard a ship lately used for smuggling. When they arrive, genocide is in full swing. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
English Passengers is one of the most satisfying historical novels I have read.
Times Literary Supplement
A wryly comic, beautifully told seafaring yarn...
From the Publisher
“This is a master storyteller at work, and he has written an astonishingly vivid and moving novel — wholly persuasive, blisteringly critical and very, very funny.” – Kevin Patterson, author of The Water In Between
“An outstanding historical novel … a wonderfully contrived and engrossing book.” – The Edmonton Journal
“A brawny, brainy adventure — a robust intellectual entertainment: a comic sea adventure, survival tale and quest for the Garden of Eden all bound in one.” – The Globe and Mail
“A grim but hilarious historical novel involving the extinction of the Tasmanians, a search for the Garden of Eden and a Manx contrabandist who conceals his smuggling from the passengers on his ship.” – The New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
Say a man catches a bullet through his skull in somebody's war, so where's the beginning of that? You might say that's easy. That little moment has its start the day our hero goes marching off to fight with his new soldier friends, all clever and smirking and waving at the girls. But does it, though? Why not the moment he first takes the shilling, his mouth hanging wide open like a harvest frog as he listens to the sergeant's flatterings? Or how about that bright sunny morning when he's just turned six and sees soldiers striding down the village street, fierce and jangling? But then why not go right back, all the way, to that long, still night when a little baby is born, staring and new, with tiniest little hands? Hands you'd never think would grow strong enough one day to lift a heavy gun, and put a bullet through our poor dead friend's brain.
If I had to choose a beginning for all these little curiosities that have been happening themselves at me, well, I'd probably pick that morning when we were journeying northwards from a certain discreet French port, where tobacco and brandy were as cheap as could be. Not that it seemed much like the beginning of anything at the time, but almost the end, or so I was hoping. The wind was steady, the ship was taking her weather nicely, and as we went about our work I dare say every man aboard was having a fine time dreaming money he hadn't yet got, and what pleasures it might buy him. Some will have been spending it faster than a piss over the side, dreaming themselves a rush of drink and smoke, then perhaps a loan of a sulky female's body. A few might have dreamed everypenny on a new jacket or boots, to dazzle Peel City with fashion for a day or two. Others would have kept cautious, dreaming it on rent paid and wives quieted.
And Illiam Quillian Kewley?
As the Sincerity jumped and juddered with the waves I was dreaming Castle Street on a Saturday morning, all bustle and everyone scrutineering everyone else, with Ealisad walking at my side in a fine new dress, both of us holding our heads high as Lords, and nobody saying, "Look see, there's Kewleysdon't you know they used to be somebody." Or I dreamed my great-grandfather, Juan, who I never met, but who was known as Big Kewley on account of being the only Kewley ever to make money rather than lose it. There he was, clear as day, leaning out of heaven with a telescope, and calling out in a voice loud as thunder, "Put a sight on him, Illiam Quillian, my own great-grandson. Now there's a man who can."
Then all of a sudden our dreamings were interrupted. Tom Teare was calling down from the masthead, where he was keeping watch. "Sail. Sail to the northwest."
Not that anyone thought much on his shout then. The English Channel is hardly the quietest stretch of ocean, so there seemed nothing too worrying in discovering another ship creeping along. The boys went on scrubbing down the deck, while chief mate Brew and myself carried on standing on the quarterdeck, making sure they kept at it.
But you should know a little about the Sincerity, as there was a wonder all made of wood if ever there was one. Truly, you couldn't imagine a vessel that looked more normal from the outside. I dare say she was a little oldher prow was round and blunt and well out of fashion, and her quarterdeck was too high for modern tastesbut other-wise she seemed as ordinary as seawater. I'd wager you could've spent all day aboard and still been none the wiser. Unless, that is, you had a particular eye for the measure of things. Or you happened to take a look above the inside top rim of the door to the pantry.
And that would be hardly likely.