It is eight years since we have had a new novel from Kate Grenville; far too long in my opinion. Her last offering was Sarah Thornhill, the third in the trilogy centred around the Thornhill family and the early years of the Australian colony which grew up as a result of the convict settlement in New South Wales. In A Room Made of Leaves Grenville returns to those early difficult years to tell the story of Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur who is apparently credited with establishing the antipodean sheep industry, building up a breed capable of providing quality wool for the European market. History tells us that Macarthur was a very difficult man, constantly at odds with those around him and forced to return to England twice, for four and then nine years, to face judgement in the courts of law. How then, Grenville asks, was such a man, always slant, guarded, sly, evasive, able to not only craft out a viable farm from inhospitable surroundings, but also carry out the skilled task of interbreeding animals capable of surviving and indeed thriving in an alien landscape? Is it not more probably the case, she argues, that his wife, brought up among sheep farmers and instructed in the business of breeding by her grandfather, was the more likely partner to have possessed the necessary acumen to drive the venture forward?
The novel purports to be a recording of papers belonging to Elizabeth Macarthur and found many years after her death. In a series of short passages she describes her early life in Devon, the death of her father, the resulting time spent on her grandfather’s farm, and her friendship with Bridie the daughter of the local minister. As a result of this friendship, Elizabeth goes to live with the Kingdon family and once she learns that it would be best for me not to be too clever, she fits in very well until such a time as it becomes apparent that she and Bridie both look fit to be left “on the shelf“. Onto the scene comes John Macarthur, an ensign on half pay. The phrase was a byword for failure. Elizabeth falls pregnant and finds herself married to a man whose every fibre was held together by pride, who boasted that he had never yet failed in ruining a man who had become obnoxious to him. In order to escape a monstrous debt, Macarthur signs on with the New South Wales Corps and Elizabeth finds herself, with only her maid, Anne, for company, embarked on a six month voyage to Australia.
Once they have landed, they are located in the same territory, both literally and figuratively, that Grenville covered in her novel The Lieutenant. The colony is limited in the extreme and Elizabeth finds herself not only without the basic comforts of life from a material point of view, but also lacking any sort of company that might bring her relief.
I met there a cold indifferent truth: that every person – even a loved person, and I was not loved – was alone.
Eventually, she discovers companionship in the person of William Dawes, the astronomer sent out to map the southern night sky, and through him she makes the acquaintance of some of the first inhabitants of Australia, people with whom, uniquely among the colonists, Dawes is trying to understand and communicate. It is Dawes who teaches her to observe the world around her and to value and appreciate what the land has to offer. Consequently, when she and her husband, accompanied by their servants Agnes Brown and the ex-sheep-stealer, William Hannaford, move inland to Parramatta and establish a smallholding, Elizabeth is the one who is aware enough of the land and the potential of the livestock they have brought with them to be able to derive a profit from their situation. Nevertheless, her life continues to be one of loneliness and extreme watchfulness, knowing that she must weigh every word she says to her husband who persists in seeing insults everywhere.
When I realised that Grenville was exploring the life of a real and documented individual, I made what I now think was a mistake in doing some background reading about Elizabeth Macarthur before I started the book. As a result, I was expecting the author to deal with Elizabeth’s life through the years during which John was back in England in the same detail that she does those early years when they are establishing themselves in Australia and was disappointed when this wasn’t the case. Up until that point I was enjoying the book very much, but, possibly because of my earlier reading, I felt that it came to a perfunctory ending. Indeed, as I realised I was coming close to the final pages I initially assumed that this was going to be the first of a new trilogy. I was also bothered by the way in which Grenville latterly has Elizabeth thinking in much more detail about the atrocities meted out to the first inhabitants. I know this is something that has exercised the writer considerably during the past couple of decades and indeed there is a preface to the book recognising the rights of the tribes to the land under discussion, but the sudden change in emphasis feels forced, almost like an afterthought and I found that disturbing.
So, in general a book that I very much enjoyed, but one that I felt was let down by its last few pages. I would still recommend that you read it. Grenville couldn’t write a bad sentence if she tried and Elizabeth’s struggle to forge a life with a man for whom she can feel nothing but contempt is beautifully portrayed, just be prepared for a bit of a jolt as it reaches its conclusion.
With thanks to Cannongate and NetGalley for the review copy.