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English Passengers

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Overview

"English Passengers is an old-fashioned book in the best sense: epic in scale, crammed with outsize characters, set in a long-ago time and a faraway place... 'A-'"
—Entertainment Weekly

"Robust and rollicking...unforgettable...It's tough to pull off a memorable epic, but Kneale has done it. So get ...
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English Passengers: A Novel

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Overview

"English Passengers is an old-fashioned book in the best sense: epic in scale, crammed with outsize characters, set in a long-ago time and a faraway place... 'A-'"
—Entertainment Weekly

"Robust and rollicking...unforgettable...It's tough to pull off a memorable epic, but Kneale has done it. So get comfortable, and be prepared to enter a fascinating world."
—New York Post

When Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley and his band of rum smugglers from the Isle of Man have most of their contraband—but not all—confiscated by British Customs, they are forced to put their ship Sincerity up for charter. The only takers are two eccentric Englishmen who want to embark for the other side of the globe.

The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson believes the Garden of Eden was on the island of Tasmania. His traveling partner, Dr. Thomas Potter, unbeknownst to Wilson, is developing a revolutionary, and sinister, thesis of his own, about the races of men. And these passengers are perhaps only slightly more odd than the crew itself, a diverse and lively bunch better equipped to entertain one another than to steer Sincerity around Cape Horn and across the Indian Ocean. Yet they set sail, pointed southward and bound for a thrilling, epic romp across the high seas and cultures of the nineteenth century.

Meanwhile, an aboriginal in Tasmania named Peevay recounts his people's struggles against the invading British, who prove as lethal in their good intentions as in their cruelty. This is no Eden but a world of hunting parties and colonial ethnic cleansing. As the English passengers haplessly approach Peevay's land, theirbizarre notions ever more painfully at odds with reality, we know a mighty collision is looming.

Full of dangerous humor, English Passengers combines wit, adventure, and harrowing historical detail in a mesmerizing display of storytelling. Narrated by over twenty different characters, each one so distinct that the reader has the sense of a story not so much told as dazzlingly peopled, Matthew Kneale has created a buoyant tale, beautifully presented in a storm of voices that brings a past age to vivid and memorable life.



Nominated for the 2000 Booker Prize.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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.

Evening Standard
At first glance it looks like any other hefty work of historical fiction, but inside it lies a slimmer, more subversive, story.
Sunday Times
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.
Library Journal
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.
Hines
English Passengers is one of the most satisfying historical novels I have read.
Times Literary Supplement
Newsweek
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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385497442
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 464,522
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Matthew Kneale lives in Oxford, England. English Passengers won the Whitbread Book of the Year 2000 award and was nominated for the 2000 Booker Prize. Kneale currently resides in London, Ontario.

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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 every penny 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 Kewleys—don'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 old—her prow was round and blunt and well out of fashion, and her quarterdeck was too high for modern tastes—but 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.

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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Matthew Kneale's English Passengers, a riveting historical novel that was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize (2000). Set in the nineteenth century, it explores in dramatic, eyewitness detail the colonization of Tasmania and the thirst for conquest, adventure, and fame that propelled the spread of the British Empire.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2001

    Step on Board

    For a rolicking ride on the high seas with men from the Isle of Man, and of course, the English passengers, who take them to the far away island of New Zealand, where the natives are under seige by the white man's disease and weapons. Witty, but spiked with horror. One of the best books of the decade, I don't know why it didn't win the Booker. Maybe it was too funny.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2014

    English Passengers is a historical fiction book that tells the s

    English Passengers is a historical fiction book that tells the story of a ship’s journey to Tasmania. Matthew Kneale, the author, writes the story to be reflective of several various voices and backgrounds. He begins the story with a band of rum smugglers, who were caught by the British customs forcing them to put their ship up for charter. This opportunity allows the real adventure to take place, starting with an expedition set for Tasmania, hired by two individualistic Englishmen who set sail for two very contrasting motives. Kneale’s broad sense of enlightenment allows him to tell the story from such viewpoints like religious affiliated men, scientists, and common sailors. His proficiency with writing becomes crystal clear through speaking in so many different voices. I would recommend this book for people looking for something with occasional touches of humor and historically enlightening material. 
    -Sam Paek

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2003

    Peeavy

    One person of this novel is most interesting character a Tasmanian Aboriginal. But the other creatures from the wrriters fiction are in the plot of 20 persons interesting from different readers angle. Matthev Kneale have had wroten a book with sence for philosophical fine art about life. I have had enjoy from first to last sentence of this magister ( think excelent) book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2002

    Take a trip to 19th century Tasmania...if you dare!

    This may well be the best historical fiction I've ever read! A masterful portrayal of very different characters -- their voices, their visions of life -- I asked myself how one author could have created such fully realized people, and then I read the afterword last. Much of the history of Tasmania which is related in this 'novel' is based on real people and events. The story skillfully teeters along the thin edge of human comedy/tragedy so the reader is drawn to the brink of horror while laughing at the nearly insane antics of characters driven by their quests. The tantalizing afterword detailing the real people behind the characters drew me into further research about the early penal colony days in Tasmania. The book is full of evocative sensory detail that delivers the story's world vividly. Descriptions of men with scurvy, storms at sea, treks through the Tasmanian bush, and indigenous aboriginal life made me feel like I was on the trip myself. A truly literary and fascinating read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2001

    Humor for the Serious Reader

    This book had me from the first chapter. I loved it. Matthew Kneale brought over 40 different characters to life, each in their own narrative voice and the result is utter beauty. English Passengers is filled with adventure, with humor, and with deep pain. It is satire at its greatest and brings the ideas of racism and equality to the forefront of your mind without seeming pushy or overlydramatic. I did not know what to expect when I picked up this book, but am glad I did and reread certian passages multiple times. Thank you Matthew Kneale for such a book. I only hope their are plenty more to come.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 26, 2000

    A New 'Shogun'.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I am attracted to entertaining adventure stories that additionally impart knowledge about a country and/or people. 'Shogun' was such a novel, and this one is of the same ilk, giving the reader insights into the history of the 'development' of Tasmania by the British. I particularly enjoyed the postscripts supplied by the author, wherein he discusses the historical facts upon which he based events and characters in the novel. I enthusiastically recommend this book to others who enjoy a good tale, well told.

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    Posted January 13, 2010

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    Posted July 22, 2011

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    Posted March 17, 2011

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