In this novel, Kate Grenville returns to the time and place which inspired her in [b:The Secret River|347698|The Secret River|Kate Grenville|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328849791s/347698.jpg|1374275]: the early days of the British colony in New South Wales. This time her central character, Daniel Rooke, is based on Lieutenant William Dawes, the First Fleet’s astronomer, who was also a skilled linguist, engineer and surveyor.
Grenville portrays Rooke as a brilliant but shy and socially awkward man: a mathematician, musician, linguist and astronomer, who becomes friends with a young girl from the local Cadigal indigenous clan and learns and records her language. Through this relationship, Rooke finds out who he really is and learns where his true loyalties lie.
In some ways, reading this novel is like being plunged into an alternative universe where everything is the same, yet different. In her author’s note, Grenville states: “This is a novel; it should not be mistaken for history”. To reinforce this point, Grenville has renamed real life historical figures. William Dawes becomes Daniel Rooke. Dawes’ friend Patyegarang is renamed Tagaran. The first governor of the colony is not Arthur Phillip but James Gilbert. A chronicler of the early days of the colony - Watkin Tench - is now Captain Silk. I can see that renaming historical figures gave Grenville the freedom to depart from her sources and make the novel a work of the imagination rather than a work in which faithfulness to the historical facts is expected. However, as a reader with some knowledge of those historical facts, it was initially disconcerting to be confronted by characters I knew by other names. It ceased to matter, though, as I became fully engrossed in Rooke’s journey of self-discovery.
For me, the most fascinating aspect of the novel is Rooke’s connection with Tagaran and the process of learning and recording the Cadigal language. I love learning about language and at heart I’m a frustrated linguist. Anyone who has spent time learning a foreign language knows that magical moment when an undifferentiated mass of sound resolves itself into recognisable words and then into sentences in which the parts of speech can be identified, even if some of the individual words remain unfamiliar. Modern language learning is supported by teachers, manuals, dictionaries and sound recordings, which don’t make learning a language any less interesting, but do make the process predictable. Reading this novel made me appreciate how it must have been for those who learned a language not previously heard or recorded. When, through his interaction with Tagaran, Rooke starts to recognise not just individual words but the patterns formed by syntax and grammar, he wonders:
Was this what Galileo had felt, turning his telescope to the night sky and seeing stars that no one had seen before?
Learning a new vocabulary and grammar is one thing. Forming a connection with another human being through that language is something else. For Rooke, this starts to occur when he and Tagaran are able to share a joke. He records the moment:
What had passed between Tagaran and himself had gone far beyond vocabulary or grammatical forms. It was the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.
Rooke later contemplates what happens when understanding of language deepens to the extent that a real conversation can occur:
This exchange was not a language lesson. It was a conversation. For the first time, he and Tagaran were on the same side of the mirror of language, simply speaking to each other. Understanding went in both directions. Once two people shared a language, they could no longer use it to hide.
And then language leads to something else again; not just a conversation, but a relationship:
What he had not learned from Latin and Greek he was learning from the people of New South Wales. It was this: you did not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who spoke it with you. His friendship with Tagaran was not a list of objects … It was the slow constructing of the map of a relationship.
The names of things, if you truly wanted to understand them, were as much about the spaces between the words as they were about the words themselves. Learning a language was not a matter of joining two points with a line. It was a leap into the other.
In depicting the relationship between Daniel Rooke and Tagaran, Grenville shows the life-changing experiences which can result from true communication between people from totally different worlds. For William Dawes, the man on whom Daniel Rooke is based, his relationship with the Cadigal people of New South Wales was life-changing indeed. It directly led to his later career working for the abolition of slavery in Antigua.
This is neither a long novel, nor a difficult novel to read. What stops me from giving it five stars is that the last part of the work feels rushed. Very little time is devoted to Rooke’s experiences after he makes a decision which affects his future in the colony and the summing up of his career after leaving New South Wales comes too soon. Many novels are too long for their content. This one is arguably too short.