Australia, colonially speaking, is a mere pipsqueak of a nation, but if adulthood is still a long way off then adolescence is pretty advanced. One sign of this is that the country has at last learned to say sorry (prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the aborigines last year); another is the ever-increasing sophistication of its literature. ‘There wasn’t much Australian literature when I was growing up,’ recalls Kate Grenville, winner of the Orange Prize for The Idea Of Perfection and Man Booker shortlistee for The Secret River. ‘There was Patrick White, Christina Stead, and what I call the “pitiless blue sky” school of colonial literature. But nothing that reflected the lives of contemporary, urban Australians. The books I read as a child were Swallows And Amazons, Biggles – absolutely irrelevant. It was only in the ’70s that, with belated government support, we started to develop our own literary industry and write vibrant books in the vernacular.’
Grenville’s books are vibrant alright, and they’re certainly in the vernacular – her latest, The Lieutenant, tells the story of Daniel Rooke, an astronomer who arrived in New South Wales from Plymouth in 1788 with a cargo of convicts and a firm belief in King George III’s divine right to rule this ‘empty’ land. Rooke is a maths genius but not terribly socialised; today, we would probably call him autistic.
‘Today,’ responds Grenville, ‘Daniel would be a happy boy in his bedroom with a computer. He’s like that kid who hacked into the Pentagon. These days, those boys who are not that good with people maybe miss out on the chance to emerge from their closed world.’ Daniel’s emergence takes the form of a burgeoning friendship with an aboriginal girl. This man who finds his own kind almost incomprehensible – and vice versa – has little difficulty communicating with a child with whom he has no language in common.
It’s a startling development but it’s not pure fiction. There was an astronomer with the First Fleet. His name was William Dawes and not much is known about him, but he left two notebooks recording his conversations with an aboriginal girl who visited his observatory. Grenville has taken these facts (and the notebooks, which she quotes verbatim) and run with them. ‘Tim Flannery, an Australian historian and scientist, quoted a little bit [from the notebooks] in a book about the First Fleet,’ she says. ‘And I realised they were unique. You just wouldn’t dare to think that a young lieutenant could have a relationship of playful affection [with a local girl] when they shared only about 150 words. His relationship with this girl blazes off the page of these funny old notebooks. I thought: My God, there’s such a story here.’
Grenville has already started her next novel and has discovered that she appears to be writing a trilogy about early white Australian history. ‘It’s all part of decolonialisation, the attempt to look at history through our own eyes as opposed to those of the colonising power.’ Like African literature? ‘It’s more confusing than in Africa, even,’ she points out, ‘because as well as being colonised we were colonisers. Writing The Secret River, I had to keep reminding myself that these people were English. They weren’t Australian even though they were my ancestors.’
She is sticking with her forebears (the central character of The Secret River was based on the first of her relatives – a convict – to arrive in Australia from England) but this time the main character is a woman out on the frontier. ‘Again, it’s an attempt at a fresh look,’ she says. ‘I want to get away from social stereotypes. My great-great-grandmother was the illiterate wife of a country publican. These women looked at the stars, heard birds at dawn, had a full interior life. But they were illiterate, and not listened to, so that life died with them. I always wanted to tell that silent story.’ Is she a feminist? ‘Certainly,’ she replies. ‘But I don’t want my fiction to have a specific message. Each book is my attempt to explore some aspect of human behaviour. The men I write are usually sympathetic. We’re all important to each other.’
It is evidently the underdog that interests her, whether that be an illiterate woman, an unsocialised lieutenant, a patchwork quilt specialist (The Idea Of Perfection) or even a sex abuser (Dark Places). This being so, early Australian history is an obvious subject for her – no wonder she keeps returning to it. ‘Every time I write a book I want to raise the bar,’ she explains. ‘That’s probably not a good idea, it makes life more difficult, but if I’m not pushing into new territory, for me there’s no great interest.’ Pioneer genes will out, it seems.
The Lieutenant is published by Canongate and is available at Magrudy’s for Dhs85