English Passengers - Matthew Kneale (2000)

English Passengers is a study in contradictions. It's a funny book set against the decidely unfunny colonization of Tasmania and consequent extermination of the aboriginals. It's loaded with eccentric English characters, whose mind-warpingly patronizing attitudes make them despicable rather than endearing. It's the same kind of juxtaposition that works so well in, for instance, I Am a Camera (and its subsequent mutation into Cabaret). The comedy serves to highlight the essential tragedy.

The plot sounds innocent enough. A crew of funny rural types, in this case Manxmen, find themselves through a humorous encounter with an English revenue cutter, obliged to take a charter to Tasmania. The expedition was organized to prove the idea that Tasmania is the site of the Garden of Eden. A charming rural Churchman feels he can prove that by both geographical and Biblical evidence. On the way, they encounter quaint aboriginals, upper class English twits and surly convincts.

Of course, the Manxmen are smugglers fighting against English oppression. The revenue men are bullies. The Churchman is a megalomaniacal Religious extremist. The expedition includes a racist phrenologist. The quaint aboriginals all die. The English twits destroy the natives and their own poor convicts with casual brutality. The convicts start out rough and are thoroughly dehumanized by their mistreatment at the hands of their own countrymen.

And, of course, the broad strokes are true.

Structurally, the book takes the shape of interweaving first person narratives. The writing is sharp, and the various voices are clear and distinct. The various tales draw closer and closer as the book moves towards its denouement, pulling the reader in as a sense of fatal inevitability takes hold of the main characters.

The book was a Booker Prize Finalist, and a Whitbread Book of the Year. One can easily see why. It's a book that sticks with you, showing the reality that underlies an era so often glamourized, the days of Queen Victoria, when everyone did Hail Brittania. It is both funny and heartbreaking, no mean feat. It is well worth riding with English Passengers.

Overall Grade: A-

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