Atlantic Monthly, 2009
Set 30 years before her Commonwealth Prize winning novel, The Secret River, Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant tells a similar tale of a misunderstood Englishman discovering the Aboriginal people of New South Wales. What differentiates The Lieutenant from The Secret River is a surprising and refreshing theme of belonging and connectivity. Present are Grenville’s consistent abilities to understand and re-birth history into a contextual narrative, but here those skills coalesce into an overarching message: “Everything is part of every other thing, now and forever.”
An outsider in his native home and among his fellow soldiers, 24 year old Daniel Rooke must travel to an unknown land and forge a surreptitious relationship with an Aboriginal girl, Tagaran, to truly understand himself and his place in the world.
Over the course of the story, Rooke and Tagaran meet in the Lieutenant’s secluded observatory to attempt an exchange of language. Fighting to gain understanding, they must distill each word and motion to find common ground. In kind, Grenville tells her story through a similar purified prose. Language is intent and clear. Each piece is meant to be examined, turned over, and prodded:
“Putuwa,” she said, pressing and smoothing. “Putuwa.”
Their hands were the same temperature now.
“Putuwa,” he repeated.
She pressed harder, smoothing with larger gestures and he understood the word to mean the action she was performing, that is to warm one’s hand by the fire and then to squeeze gently the fingers of another person. In English it required a long rigmarole of words. In England a person who warmed their hands by the fire did so in order to thrust them into their pockets and keep them warm. Tagaran was teaching him a word, and by it she was showing him a world.
Passages such as this invoke a relationship with the reader, wherein Grenville lets us take her thoughts and hold them in our mouths until they become ours, as though we too are learning her language.
In our real lives, admiration lies in a murky pond with romantic and platonic emotions. In art I see few stories that accurately illustrate this complex feeling. I am reminded of that last scene in Lost in Translation when Bill Murray kisses ScarJo—a punctuation of their shared experience together. I love that scene and am so glad it’s in the murky pond. But in a lot of other stories, characters are either desperately fawning over each other or painfully realizing they were better off friends. Life, conversely, doesn’t proffer clear-cut, fully realized, categorization. Grenville gets that.
Narration such as, “A face was a public thing but a body, no matter how childish, was private,” illustrates the respect and distance Rooke shows for Tagaran’s body but yet in the same scene he refers to her skin as “sumptuously dark.” Although platonic, the relationship develops an importance, based on mutual admiration, which the characters are unable to share with their societies. Yet, Grenville lets us sit right in the middle. Her delicate perception and execution of this human experience make her an author I’ll definitely read again. After all, isn’t that why we read stories—to understand ours a little better?
In bringing this relationship to life, Grenville did have a little help; her characters are inspired by the journals of British astronomer William Dawes and his relationship with an Aboriginal girl. Although Grenville insists her story is fiction, all of the dialogue between Rooke and Tagaran is taken from these journals. She uses a strong, close third person narrative to expand on the thoughts of her protagonist and I think we see a maturation in her storytelling through her intimate efforts to substantiate this character. Grenville’s relationship to Rooke is in fact similar to Rooke’s relationship with Tagaran; I am different than you in so many ways, but I perceive you, I embody you, and I understand the world better because of you.
Writers often admit they are surprised by the direction their characters and stories take. Joan Didion, in an interview with the Paris Review, states candidly, “I never know quite what I’m doing when I’m writing a novel, and the actual line of it doesn’t emerge until I’m finishing.” Grenville herself admits to having been surprised by the hopeful direction her narrative took. Like Rooke, and so many of us, understanding and meaning are found far from anything we could have imagined. The Lieutenant is a great read which reminds us the finding is possible.