This is a book I picked up because of reviews. I read some very good reviews about it, and then it was on sale. It seemed like fate. (I use this excuse for almost any book that I buy, to be fair.)
It’s based on a true story, the story of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy who is involved with the settling of Australia. He becomes friends with some of the natives, starting to learn their language, and that connection informs the rest of his life and career.
The style is very reflective of the main character, Daniel Rooke. He’s never really felt like he fit in – he has a very mathematical mind and, if he were alive today, would probably be considered to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He doesn’t quite understand most social encounters and relates better to numbers than to people (which, you might imagine, is not too popular at a time when most people didn’t have formal schooling). He joins the Navy and ultimately the trip to Australia because of his mathematical gifts, his need for rules and structure, and his interest in astronomy. He ultimately makes a few friends – Silk, in particular, whose interest in words and narrative and storytelling mirrors Rooke’s interest in mathematics, astronomy, and order.
His friendship with the natives starts from his interest in rules and order – he hopes to learn and transcribe their language according to the precise rules of grammar, so that others may learn. Of course, language is not that easy, as he learns. Neither are relationships – with the natives, with the Navy, with Silk, with himself.
But I was talking about the style. It’s fairly emotionless for most of the book. We know what Rooke is seeing, doing, and feeling, but it’s very clinical, very straightforward, as Rooke himself is. It is not until we get towards the end, when things at Botany Bay are starting to fall apart, when his relationship with the native girl (a sister-brother type relationship, not that anyone believes him) is starting to conflict with his relationship with the Navy, that you actually feel for Rooke – that there is anything to feel for Rooke. That Rooke really feels anything himself, beyond the satisfaction he’s previously felt at his solitude and star-gazing. By the end, your heart breaks for him, as his is breaking at the events that he is forced to become a part of, and the consequences for him of these conflicting priorities.
It’s an anti-racism book, but not to the point where it gets preachy. Rooke simply presents his observations and the conclusions he draws from them, and the reader is allowed to make up their own mind. (Not that I anticipate that any reader of this book will go, “Ooh, racism is good!”) It’s about the conflict between love (not romantic love) and duty – but again, not to the point of preachiness. But at the same time, it doesn’t really express very many new ideas or new ways of thinking. It’s a nice book; it’s a well-done book. It’s not a groundbreaking book. The information about the Australian natives is interesting and unique in my experience, but the message of the book itself isn’t really anything new.