Books

Kate Grenville
A Room Made of Leaves

The conceit of Kate Grenville’s ninth novel is that the author discovers a memoir written by Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur, the British army officer and pioneer of the Australian wool industry. Grenville acts as a “transcriber and editor” and in her foreword observes: “Australian history, like most histories, is mainly about men.” It is precisely this history that Elizabeth’s counter-narrative sets out to question.

Elizabeth tells us she registers “disgust” when asked by her son to write a historical account of her life. This feeling has to do with the disparity between the historical record and her personal experience of events. She opts instead for a personalised account, referring to her letters as “pious reassuring lies”.

Though not an orphan, Elizabeth is raised initially on her grandparents’ sheep farm, and later by a family friend. During her childhood she learns to be “someone who … put herself carefully away, where no one could see her”. She meets and is drawn to John Macarthur although he is “an ugly cold sort of fellow”. In one of her first acts of self-determination, Elizabeth allows herself to be seduced by Macarthur but, instead of resulting in her freedom, it traps her in an unhappy marriage. As she sails to Sydney Cove with Macarthur in order for him to take up a post in 1789, she loses one of what will become many children.

Elizabeth Macarthur was renowned for her optimistic letters on colonial life, but here she tells us the houses are “sad messes that a dog would be ashamed to live in”. Prisoners and soldiers alike live off rations, and violence abounds. Rather than a tribute to the pioneering spirit, this is described as a place of brutality – one in which the rape of convicts by soldiers is not uncommon. Elizabeth’s take on our colonial history emphasises a corrupt ineptitude: how ill prepared settlers were for the landscape and unwilling to learn from those who knew. One of the achievements of this novel is the irony enacted in having the British send their petty thieves to the colony, while simultaneously performing an egregious act of theft on its original owners.

At a personal level, Elizabeth finds a degree of intellectual freedom here, learning piano and botany, and taking astronomy lessons with William Dawes. In her lessons with Dawes, Elizabeth encounters the Indigenous population and starts to distrust the colonial perception of them as “savages”. With Dawes, Elizabeth discovers her “room of leaves”, which takes on symbolic significance as a place of freedom among the abject circumstances in which she is forced to live.

Despite the tantalising metafictional hook at the start of this novel, the narrative voice is clearly fictional: Grenville’s prose is elegant and meticulously crafted. Furthermore, Grenville undoes the metafictional conceit as soon as the “memoir” concludes, revealing – unnecessarily – that she is the author of the novel. There are important questions that this device might have allowed Grenville to foreground, not least of these is: what are the ethical boundaries of playing with historical fact, particularly when those facts are contentious? Grenville for the most part stays safely within the boundaries of realism, never quite deploying this device as fiercely or radically as she might have done.

Elizabeth’s portrait of John is not flattering: he is a vain and cruel man, personally ambitious, and untrustworthy; a man whose “judgement was dangerously unbalanced”. A Room Made of Leaves may be a novel about powerlessness, but it is certainly not about passivity: Elizabeth makes what she can of her circumstances, realising her “life was locked in with his.” When Elizabeth moves to Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta, the narrative pivots. Elizabeth starts to exercise more agency, deploying her knowledge of sheep breeding, combining Indian, Irish and Spanish stock to create a resilient wool that is shipped back to England. As Macarthur becomes more involved in political machinations, Elizabeth takes an increasingly prominent role in ensuring the prosperity of the farm.

She becomes aware of the guerilla war between the local Burramattagal people, led by Pemulwuy, against the settlers. Their method of warfare is particularly devastating and effective for a colony on the brink of starvation: “Crops were burned, stock killed, huts robbed.” Despite Elizabeth’s efforts to make contact with the Burramattagal, they evade her and she observes, “We were two sets of people inhabiting the same space, each set going about its affairs as if the other were not there.”

Rather than the infamous rebellion against Governor Bligh that John Macarthur was known for, it is the Battle of Parramatta that takes centre stage in the novel. The Dharug attack a British garrison, where Pemulwuy is injured by guns. As John Macarthur recounts this to her, Elizabeth tells us “I felt I was trying to see the event through a fog” and she suspects Macarthur of manipulating the record of events.

In an afterword, Elizabeth notes her awareness that she is on stolen land but is “not prepared to give them back what has always been theirs”. Elizabeth’s reasoning here is distinctively contemporary. It is unlikely that Elizabeth Macarthur would have thought this way; this awareness is a cumulative one, marked by successive unsuccessful attempts at forging meaningful reconciliation. Despite the trappings of history in A Room Made of Leaves and Grenville’s impressive use of the archive to conjure the novel, her achievement here is not a historical one. A Room Made of Leaves questions, rhetorically, how to live ethically with a history that is unfair; Elizabeth’s unease reflects a cosmopolitan anxiety of having benefited from the colonialism that dispossessed First Nations people of their land and profited from its resources.

In a beautiful image, Elizabeth observes Aboriginal children walking along the Parramatta River, their bodies reflected in the water “so you could wonder which was child, which reflection”. It is this seamless connection to the landscape that the British settlers lacked, and the echo of these mistakes still haunt us today.

Gretchen Shirm

Text, 336pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2020 as "Kate Grenville, A Room Made of Leaves".

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Reviewer: Gretchen Shirm