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.