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The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

The LieutenantKate Grenville(Text, $37)

What would it be like to voyage for months on end only to encounter a vast continent of baking heat, alien plants and animals and a human culture so different, it might as well be extraterrestrial?  In our noisy, crowded world, it’s almost impossible to imagine but this is what master Australian novelist Kate Grenville sets out to do in The Lieutenant.

Young English astronomer Daniel Rooke sails from London with a ship of convicts bound for Sydney Cove in 1786. While his superiors are intent on claiming Australia for the British and establishing a colony, the young lieutenant is on the hunt for an elusive comet that he hopes will make his name as a man of science. However, the power of the Australian landscape and a chance encounter with a young Aboriginal girl named Tagaran set Daniel on a wholly unexpected course.

The sensitive young man begins to view the English and their “civilising” intentions in a new light as he learns to communicate with the indigenous people and understand their culture. Eventually his loyalties and humanity are tested to the limit, with horrific consequences.

The Lieutenant is, in fact, based on a true story – a young marine named William Dawes travelled to Australia in 1788 and recorded not only his scientific observations but also what are still the most extensive translations of the indigenous Cadigal language in existence.

William’s notebooks captured Kate’s imagination and she brought his story to life through meticulous research and her famous passion for Australian history that were also on show in her 2006 Commonwealth Prize-winning novel The Secret River. As a result, this novel is a rich document of colonial life in the antipodes and if you like history, adventure and gorgeous writing you’ll love this book.

But really, The Lieutenant is must-read because it is a heartbreaking portrait of a culture that has been all but wiped out. If ever we needed a cautionary tale about the importance of learning to truly understand our fellow man, this is it.

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