Kate Grenville is a bestselling Australian author who has already written about her country’s convict past. In The Lieutenant she goes back to the First Fleet, in 1788, and the story of a Lieutenant of Marines who compiled the first dictionary and grammar of any of the aboriginal languages.
In Grenville’s version of the story the lieutenant is David Rooke, a brilliant but semi-autistic loner who has difficulties with human relationships. He goes to New South Wales as an astronomer, which suits his reclusive nature, and learns to make deeper human contacts through the aboriginal girl who helps him compile his dictionary. Eventually he is sent back to England for refusing to take part in a punitive expedition against the local tribe.
In essence the book is a character study of a man who is awkward with his peers and finds it easier to relate to people in another culture, outside the hierarchies of his own society. It is an interesting addition to the literature on ‘first contacts’.
The story is sensitively told, but the plot is very slight. It is difficult to write an eventful story about a man who compiled a dictionary and of whom little else is known. I agree with the journalistic comment on the back cover, that this is a ‘beautifully uplifting piece of fiction’, but not that it is a ‘riveting read.