Canongate| 6 August 2020| 325 pages| e-book| Review copy| 4*
I’m late getting round to reading A Room Made of Leaves, because I am behind with reviewing my NetGalley books. But it was well worth the wait. It’s historical fiction telling the story of the Macarthurs, Elizabeth and John Macarthur, who settled in Australia at the end of the eighteenth century. It’s based on the real lives of the Macarthurs using letters, journals and official documents of the early years of the New South Wales colony. But, although based on fact this is not history, it is fiction, as Kate Grenville makes clear in her Author’s Note at the end of the book (which I read after I read the opening paragraphs of the Editor’s Note at the start of the book).
It is 1788. Twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth is hungry for life but, as the ward of a Devon clergyman, knows she has few prospects. When a soldier, John Macarthur promises her the earth one midsummer’s night, she believes him and with a baby on the way she marries him. Only then he tells her he is to take up a position as Lieutenant in a New South Wales penal colony and she has no choice but to go. Sailing for six months to the far side of the globe with a child growing inside her, she arrives to find Sydney Town a brutal, dusty, hungry place of makeshift shelters, failing crops, scheming and rumours.
All her life she has learned to be obliging, to fold herself up small. Now, in the vast landscapes of an unknown continent, Elizabeth has to discover a strength she never imagined, and passions she could never express.
Inspired by the real life of a remarkable woman, this is an extraordinarily rich, beautifully wrought novel of resilience, courage and the mystery of human desire.
I’ve enjoyed all of the books by Kate Grenville that I’ve read so far. Her writing suits me – historical fiction, straight-forward story-telling, with good descriptive writing setting the scenes vividly in their locations. I find her books difficult to put down and they stay in my mind long after I’ve finished reading. This one is no exception.
It begins in Devon where Elizabeth was born and grew up, first with her parents and then after her father died on her grandfather’s sheep farm and then with the local vicar’s family, whose daughter, Bridie is her friend. There she meets John Macarthur, an ensign. When she becomes pregnant they marry and then he tells her he has signed on as a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps in the penal colony at Sydney Cove. But their married life is not a happy one. John was rash, impulsive, changeable, self-deceiving, and given to embarking on grandiose schemes. He was quick to take offence and was dangerously unbalanced. Over the course of their marriage he was forced to return to England twice, at first for four years and later for nine. During that time Elizabeth made the best of life, carrying on with their sheep farm at Parramatta, where she improved the flock, and helped to establish New South Wales as a reliable supplier of quality wool.
One of the outstanding parts of the book for me is her relationship with William Dawes, an astronomer with the Corps, who was mapping the night sky. He had an observatory near Elizabeth’s farm and it was there that she met some of the local inhabitants and learned a bit of their language and about their ways of life. And it is with William that Elizabeth learns to appreciate not just the night sky, but also the landscape and its flora and fauna and in particular the ‘room made of leaves’ – a private space enclosed on three sides by greenery, a place where you could simply be yourself.
This is a book that captivated me from the opening paragraphs, and there is so much more in it than I have mentioned in this post. It gave me much to think about, in particular bearing in mind the epigraph, an actual quotation from one of Elizabeth’s letters: Believe not too quickly, reminding me that this is a work of fiction. I enjoyed it immensely. And it makes me want to know more about the Macarthurs. I came across Michelle Scott Tucker’s biography: Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World and I was delighted to see that Kate Grenville references this book as the standard biography in her Acknowledgements. It is now on my wishlist!
Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.