A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville
Kate Grenville returns with a much-anticipated fourth novel considering Australia’s colonial past, and interactions between Australia’s First Nations peoples and colonists. Purporting to be the lost manuscript of the memoir of Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of John Macarthur, A Room Made of Leaves describes the awakening of a young woman and the discovery of herself as someone she likes, even someone she admires.
Often described as the father of the wool industry in Australia, the Macarthur here is an ambitious and brutish bully. Forcing his attentions on the young Elizabeth, she has little recourse but to marry the young ensign. Macarthur is posted to the infant British colony at Sydney Cove. As his wife, Elizabeth has no choice but to leave her beloved Devon for the very different world of the colony. Macarthur has no real affection for his wife; she is just a prized chattel that completes his position in the small community.
Elizabeth subtly pushes back, cultivating her own friendships in the colony and establishing a weekly salon, which she hosts. At one of her salons, she bemoans her lack of formal knowledge to the colony’s chronicler, Watkin Tench. In return, he tells her about William Dawes, the colony’s astronomer and engineer. Dawes is a recluse who lives on a headland at the edge of the settlement and is a mathematical prodigy, fluent in Latin and Greek, and a great botanist. Elizabeth asks Tench to see if Dawes will give her some lessons.
Through Dawes, Elizabeth experiences things she has never known, and, also through Dawes, meets several of the local First Nations people for the first time. It is her relationship with Dawes that changes Elizabeth’s life. Meanwhile, Macarthur schemes and feuds in his efforts to gain power and fortune, finally managing to secure one hundred acres of land in Parramatta to settle upon and farm. Macarthur is so erratic that it is Elizabeth who steers the venture to its success and influence; it is Elizabeth and her story that shine. Of course, the appropriation of First Nations peoples’ land and the displacement of the local population hangs like a heavy cloud in the time of Grenville’s novel, as it does still today. This story, told through Grenville’s sharp lens, is one that will stay with the reader for a long time.