A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

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.

My thoughts:

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.

My Friday Post: The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I’m currently reading A Room Made of Leaves by Elizabeth Grenville, her latest book, and have nearly finished it. I love her books and as I’ve nearly finished it I was wondering which book to read next and remembered I have one of her earlier books, The Lieutenant still waiting to be read. To my surprise when I opened it this morning I found that it is another book about one of the characters in A Room Made of Leaves. That character is William Dawes, a real person, a soldier in the first days of the Colony of New South Wales.

The Lieutenant  is about Daniel Rooke, based on real events in William Dawes’ life, using his notebooks in which he recorded his conversations with a young girl, Patyegarang, (also in A Room Made of Leaves), in his efforts to learn the language of the indigenous people of Sydney. It is a novel that stays close to the historical events. 

It begins:

Daniel Rooke was quiet, moody, a man of few words. He had no memories other than of being an outsider.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

It seemed that the natives did not like the surgeon’s music any more than they had enjoyed his performance with the pistol. Their faces were stony. After a minute they took the two pieces of shield and disappeared into the woods.

Book description:

1788 Daniel Rooke sets out on a journey that will change the course of his life. As a lieutenant in the First Fleet, he lands on the wild and unknown shores of New South Wales. There he sets up an observatory to chart the stars. But this country will prove far more revelatory than the skies above.

Based on real events, The Lieutenant tells the unforgettable story of Rooke’s connection to an Aboriginal child – a remarkable friendship that resonates across the oceans and the centuries.

One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville

One Life: My Mother’s Story

Australian author, Kate Grenville has written a beautiful biography of her mother Nance Russell. A book that casts light not only on Nance’s life but also on life in Australia for most of the 20th century. Nance was born in 1912 and died in 2002, so she lived through two World Wars, an economic depression and a period of great social change. Nance wasn’t famous, the daughter of a rural working-class couple who became pub-keepers, but she was a remarkable woman.

Kate’s mother had wanted to write her own story and had left fragments of stories about her ancestors, stories her mother had told her, about her childhood, but most about her adult life up to her mid-forties. (Kate Grenville has used some of the stories of her ancestors in her own novels – such as The Secret River, a wonderful historical novel).

So this biography reads like a novel, but is based on Nance Russell’s memories, making it much more than a factual account of a person’s life. It’s is a vivid portrait of a real woman, a woman of great strength and determination, who had had a difficult childhood, who persevered, went to University, became a pharmacist, opened her own pharmacy, brought up her children, and helped build the family home. She faced sex discrimination and had to sell her pharmacy in order to look after her children at home.

Nance had wanted to be a teacher, but when she said this to her mother she ‘exploded. Over her dead body Nance was going to be a teacher!‘  But her parents thought that pharmacy was ‘good for a girl‘. It was 40  years later, after her own children were grown up, that Nance took an arts degree, then a teaching diploma and a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language. ‘She taught French in schools, taught English to newly arrived migrant children, and ran her own business teaching English to the wives of Japanese business men.

My bare account of Nance’s life doesn’t do justice to this book, in which Kate Grenville brings to life both the good times and the bad times, writing about her mother’s heartache, worries, joys and sorrows, of the hard times during the economic depression, all of it as a whole making a rich and fulfilled life. Very near to the end of the book Kate Grenville writes:

One of her last trips [to Europe] was to Florence, where she stood in front of the frescoes that Dante had seen. A line came into her mind from somewhere in all her reading: Suffering pierces the shield of habit. It was a thought that made sense of the unhappiness she’d known, and also the happiness. She knew that ultimately it didn’t matter what happened to you. In the light of eternity, in the light of all those dead writers in whose work she’d recognised the great truths, only one thing mattered. What other people did was up to them. Your job was to live – as richly and honestly as you could – your one life. (page 246)

Reading Challenges: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015 and What’s in a Name? 2015 in the category of a book with a familial relation in the title.

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

Last week I was thinking about taking Kate Grenville’s book, The Idea of Perfection back to the library without finishing it. But I gave it another go and this time it interested me enough to finish it. I thought her book The Secret River was brilliant, one of the best books I read last year and I also loved Sarah Thornhill, but I didn’t think The Idea of Perfection was as good as either of these, which surprised me as it won the 2001 Orange Prize for Fiction. That’s not to say I didn’t like it because I did, just not as much as the other two books.

I think the reason is that for the most part it lacked the drama of the other books and I found the beginning very slow. The title indicates the theme of the book with the characters all falling short of the impossible aim of perfection. Set in Karakarook, in New South Wales the two main characters are Douglas Cheeseman, an engineer who has come to pull down a quaint old bent bridge before it falls down and Harley Savage, who has come to advise the residents how to promote their inheritance. They both know they are far from perfect. On the other hand there is Felicity Porcelline, the local bank manager’s wife who thinks she is perfect and everything she does is aimed at perfection, which she doesn’t achieve either – just the opposite, in fact.

It’s quite a touching tale as Douglas and Harley, both middle aged and with failed marriages behind them, are shy awkward characters and although they are attracted to each other for most of the novel they find it almost impossible to express their feelings. They are both outsiders, neither fitting easily either into their own families or within society. Underlying their relationship is the conflict about the dilapidated bridge – should it be restored or replaced with a modern bridge? And just what should the proposed Pioneer Heritage Museum contain? – heirlooms, jewellery, silver teapots and lace christening robes, or the things Harley thinks are right – the really old shabby things that show how people used to live, the old bush-quilts made from old clothes, for example.

It’s the setting that really stands out – the dusty little country town in a valley in New South Wales, the hillsides, the river and the ‘huge pale sky, bleached with the heat.‘ Kate Grenville paints a picture of the town and its surrounding countryside with such detail that you can feel the heat and dust and see the buildings, the houses clinging to the hillside, tilting, patched and stained with rusting roofs and the dirt road leading out of Karakarook.

The strange thing is that after I finished reading it this book has grown on me as it were. And now I’ve written about I think I appreciate it more than I did whilst reading it. It’s precise writing, full of detail about the people and the places within its pages and also full of thoughts about love, loneliness, relationships and the impossibility of perfection.

Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Searching for the Secret River is Kate Grenville’s account of how she came to write The Secret River. Her interest began with her great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman,who was the original ferryman at Wiseman’s Ferry. Her mother had told her stories about him, but she wanted to know more about what he was like and what he might have done when he first encountered Aboriginal people.

It is a fascinating book detailing how she went about her research into family history and how she imagined his life from facts gleaned from the records and the places he had lived.

She writes about reading. As a short-sighted child reading was her whole life:

I read in the bath, I read on the toilet, I read under the desk at school, I read up in my tree house, feeling the branches of the jacaranda swell and subside under me.

I can identify so well with this. I was a short-sighted child and read everywhere too, walking round the house, in bed under the covers with a torch when I should have been asleep, all the places Kate Grenville read, although not in a tree house – I would have loved a tree house!

She writes about writing. As a writer she couldn’t help examining how other writers went about their writing – seeing how books had been made. One book that helped her with writing The Secret River is Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, a novel based on historical events in which some of the characters are apparently versions of real people. She had come to the point in her book where she had written lots of notes, forty-seven folders of notes!! So she made lists to try to organise her writing and then began just writing scenes and descriptions of various aspects – about London and Sydney, the convict system, and what she called ‘elements of memoir.’ But she thought that lots of her writing was dry and dead.

Reading Anil’s Ghost, however she realised that she had to take herself out of the book and find a character to carry out the search for the story of Wiseman and his dealings with the Aboriginal people. To do this she had to see the scenes before she could write them:

The hard part of the writing wasn’t finding the words – they seemed to come reasonably easily. If they started to come reluctantly, I stopped writing and began with something else. The hard part was finding the picture. Once I could see and hear the moment, I could write it.

In her first draft some parts were in the first person, some in the third person, but always from Wiseman’s point of view. The first-person point of view seemed right but then she decided that that didn’t match Wiseman’s character and there were things she wanted the book to say that Wiseman couldn’t say – about the Aboriginal culture for one thing. So, it had to be in the third person, but the ‘third person subjective’ – ‘from Wiseman’s point of view but only partly in his voice.’

There is so much in this book – the research, the notes, the descriptive passage, the numerous drafts, finding the right voices, the characters, identifying the central drama of the novel, the right eighteenth century names, developing Wiseman into a character, renaming him William Thornhill and building a picture of the Thornhill family. Then the dialogue had to be right, to be convincing. She listened to a recording of Robert Browning, went through transcripts of Old Bailey trials, looked at how Dickens, Defoe and other writers put words into their characters’ mouths.She remembered her mother’s and grandfather’s sayings, phrases and idioms. In the end she decided that she wouldn’t try

to reconstruct the authentic sound of nineteenth century vernacular. My job was to produce something that sounded authentic. … I read all the dialogue aloud. If anything hit a false note, it was obvious straight away. This was a bad one for example: ‘That bit of land, he said. Remember, I told you. We’ll lose it if we don’t move soon.’

This sounded terribly drawing-room. I muddied it up: ‘that bit of land, he said. Remember he telled you. We’ll miss out if we don’t grab it.’

She deleted large sections of dialogue.

The whole book is compelling reading, not just because it’s about how she wrote the book and the enormous amount of work she put into research, but also because in itself it paints a picture of life in London in the late eighteenth century and Australia in the early years of settlement in the early nineteenth century. I was captivated from start to finish.

Searching for The Secret River: a Book Beginnings Post

Book Beginnings ButtonGilion at Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Friday in which you share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I’m currently reading Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It begins:

In the puritan Australia of my childhood, you could only get a drink on a Sunday if you were a ‘bona fide traveller’. That meant you had to have travelled fifty miles or more. Around Sydney a ring of townships at exactly the fifty-mile mark filled with cheerful people every Sunday. One of them was a little place called Wiseman’s Ferry.

I loved Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River, so when I discovered that she had written a book about how she came to write it I just had to get a copy. Her interest began with her great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman,the original ferryman at Wiseman’s Ferry. Her mother had told her stories about him, but she wanted to know more about, what he was like and what he might have done when he first encountered Aboriginal people … she needed to know.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but it is fascinating – seeing how she went about her research into family history and how she imagined his life from facts gleaned from the records and the places he had lived.

Lilian's Story by Kate Grenville: a Book Beginnings post

Book Beginnings ButtonBook Beginnings on Friday at Gilion’s blog Rose City Reader is the place to share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Lilian’s Story by Kate Grenville begins:

It was a wild night in the year of the Federation that the birth took place. Horses kicked down their stables. Pigs flew, figs grew thorns. the infant mewled and stared and the doctor assured the mother that a caul was a lucky sign. A girl? the father exclaimed, outside in the waiting room, tiled as if for horrible emergencies. This was a contingency he was not prepared for, but he rallied within a day and announced: Lilian. She will be called Lilian Una.

When I returned Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville to the library the other day Lilian’s Story was sitting on the shelf and because I’d enjoyed Sarah Thornhill and before that The Secret River I decided to borrow this book, even though I’ve got more than enough books of my own to keep me busy for a long time.

The back cover tells me that Lilian begins life as the daughter of a prosperous middle-class family and ends it as an eccentric bag-lady living on the streets, quoting Shakespeare for a living. I’m hoping it will be as good as the other two of Grenville’s books that I’ve read! This opening is promising, I think.

Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville

A few thoughts on Sarah Thornhill:

I wrote about the opening paragraphs of this book in a Book Beginnings post; paragraphs that made me want to read on with promise of a good story. And that is what I got – it’s basically a love story set in 19th century Australia, where the convicts, transported or ‘sent out‘ are  now called ‘old colonists‘.

There is prejudice – some people, those who had ‘come free‘,  thought being ‘sent out‘ meant you were tainted for all time, but for others having money and land overcame their distaste. And then there is the prejudice about the ‘blacks’. When Sarah, the daughter of William Thornhill, an ‘old colonist’ and now a landowner on the Hawkesbury River, falls in love with Jack Langland, whose mother was a native woman, racial prejudice and hatred rear their ugly heads.

I loved this book, which kept me captivated from start to finish, as the secrets of the Thornhill family are brought to light. I liked the narrative, told in Sarah’s voice, that of an uneducated young woman, struggling to understand what had happened and why. I found the dialogue convincing, and I could visualise the landscape and the hardships of life in that place and time. I was also totally involved with the characters, all of which made the book come alive for me.

I think it stands well alone, but it is the sequel to The Secret River and it does reveals a significant part of that book, so be aware of that if you haven’t read The Secret River.

Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville: a Book Beginnings post

Book Beginnings Button

Book Beginnings on Friday at Gilion’s blog Rose City Reader is the place to share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I’m currently reading Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville. It begins:

The Hawkesbury was a lovely river, wide and calm, the water dimply green, the cliffs golden in the sun, and white birds roosting in the trees like so much washing. It was a sweet thing of a still morning, the river-oaks whispering and the land standing upside down in the water.

They called us the Colony of New South Wales. I never liked that. We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves. (page 3)

I heaved a sigh of relief when I read these opening paragraphs. They paint such a beautiful picture in the first paragraph – I love the peaceful image of a dimply green river reflecting the world upside down – and then the contrast of the strongly individual statements in the second paragraph. The narrator is Sarah Thornhill, a young girl at the beginning of the book, the youngest daughter of William Thornhill, who had been transported to Australia for stealing timber and whose story is told in Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River.

My sigh of relief is because recently I’ve been rather disappointed in my choice of books. Sarah Thornhill is the follow up book to The Secret River, a book I absolutely loved and I was concerned that this book wouldn’t live up to my expectations (see my previous post on Joanne Harris’s book The Lollipop Shoes).

I’m now over half way through the book and although it’s written in different style from The Secret River, so far it’s living up to its early promise. My sigh of relief is now a sigh of contentment.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville: a Book Review

Every now and then I read a book that completely captivates me and transports me to another world and The Secret River by Kate Grenville is one of those books. I know a book is a good book for me if I abandon any other books I’m reading and can’t wait to get back to it each time I have to put it down. This is one of those books.

It begins:

The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Now it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales. There was hardly a door, barely a wall: only a flap of bark, a screen of sticks and mud. There was no need of lock, of door, of wall: this was a prison whose bars were ten thousand miles of water.

This is historical fiction, straight-forward story-telling following William Thornhill from his childhood in the slums of London to Australia. He was a Thames waterman transported for stealing timber; his wife,Sal and child went with him and together they make a new life for themselves. It’s about struggle for survival as William is eventually pardoned and becomes a waterman on the Hawkesbury River and then a settler with his own land and servants.

The novel raises several issues – about crime and punishment, about landownership, defence of property, power, class and colonisation. The settlers take land owned by the ‘blacks’ – the Aborigines – with the inevitable resulting conflicts and atrocities on both sides. It begins with confrontation between William and the ‘blacks’ as William tries to negotiate a relationship with the Aborigines who unknown to him owned the land he had been granted. But it’s not the only conflict he has to deal with because he also has to contend with some of the  other English settlers on neighbouring land who have a much more violent attitude towards the Aborigines. Although William has a longing for the land he does not have the same identification with it as the Aborigines do:

‘˜Jack slapped his hand on the ground so hard a puff of dust flew up and wafted away.  This me, he said. My place. He smoothed the dirt with his palm so it left a patch’¦ Sit down hereabouts.’ …

… there was an emptiness as he [Thornhill] watched Jack’s hand caressing the dirt. This was something he did not have: a place that was part of his flesh and spirit. (page 344)

It’s a well-paced narrative with good descriptive writing setting the scenes vividly in their locations. It’s rhythmic expressing moods, the differences in cultures and the mounting tension. There are some stereotypical characters, but the main characters, William in particular, are convincing. Their dilemmas they face come over as real as they struggle to come to terms with their situations.

I found this book difficult to put down and it has lived in my mind for days – a dramatic and vivid story and thought -provoking as well. There are two more novels by Kate Grenville about Australia’s history – The Lieutenant, published in 2008, and Sarah Thornhill, published earlier this year. I hope they’re as good.