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English Passengers    by Matthew Kneale order for
English Passengers
by Matthew Kneale
Order:  USA  Can
Anchor, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This tale has a quirky and engaging start, in which a series of serendipitous events (including the Indian Mutiny) launches Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley and his Manx crew of smugglers on a flight from English justice to 1800's Van Diemen's Land (modern Tasmania). All Captain Kewley wanted was to earn a little jink (gold) by landing some tobacco, brandy, and pornographic glass in England. But the Bishop of Man, an Englishman of course, says pig instead of swiney, and the Captain's troubles begin.

In the course of them, he is compelled to charter his ship to a bunch of Englishment on a nutty expedition to prove a theory that locates the Garden of Eden in Tasmania. They are led by an obsessed Vicar who developed the theory, and accompanied by a doctor who is equally single-minded in developing a science of Saxon supremacy. Together they fumble their way across the globe, with Kewley and crew attempting to offload their incriminating cargo safely and to keep its secret from their oblivious passengers.

The story is told from alternating points of view (each presented in a clear and original voice): the Captain, his passengers and various players down under. The first of the latter is escaped convict Jack Harp, who abducts an aboriginal girl and keeps her chained for his use. She escapes back to her people and so begins Peevay's story. He grows up as a half-caste blackfellow, deserted by his mother and disliked by many of his own. Peevay's whole life is a Candide-like voyage in search of understanding ... of his own origins, what's happening to his people and of how to prevent it.

For, despite its quirky humor and irony, English Passengers tells the story of the genocide of the Tasmanian aboriginals from Peevay's perspective, and does it very well. Kneale does an excellent job of portraying this eradication of a people from all sides - the innocent, the guilty and those guilty by association - and in particular reveals the kinds of rationalizations that people use to justify their participation in something evil for their own profit.

He also paints a credible picture of Peevay's difficulty in understanding the expedition members' approach to travel in the interior ... 'Truly it was a mystery to confuse how they ever could kill all my ones and steal the world, or even why they wanted it, as it was no place they could endure. Why, they couldn't live here just alone but had to carry some HOBART TOWN with them hither and thither.'

As this story wends its way to its destination, all of the English passengers get their just deserts. There are two characters in the novel whom the reader can really like and respect - Peevay and Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley. Though they both suffer from unrelenting bad luck all through the book, they too get appropriate and ironic ends to their stories. This is an excellent read, don't miss it.
(Winner of the 2000 Whitbread Book of the Year Award)

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