Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Reading Group Guide for
by Kate Grenville
The novel begins with Daniel Rooke's childhood during which he is keenly aware of the "misery of being out of step with the world" (p. 5). Talk about your impressions of Rooke as a young boy, finding instances of his experiences as an outsider, and consider how his childhood prepares him for the life ahead of him.
Author Kate Grenville writes with a poet's sensibility, especially apparent in her evocative descriptions of setting throughout the novel. How does the ocean town of Portsmouth, England, with its shingle shore and soft rain shape the young Rooke? Is it a place that symbolizes for him a certain time and mind-set? Why do you think he rarely returns there?
"Rooke had his own sacred text in which his God made Himself plain: mathematics ... because to think mathematically was to feel the action of God in oneself" (p. 14). Why does the young Rooke feel so secure in this worldview? Consider again his early years up until his first experiences as a soldier and find evidence that supports his theory, as well as evidence against it.
Continue your discussion by talking about the machinery of the army and life in His Majesty's service, a life that appeals to Rooke with its rituals, brass sextant, and days and nights spent beneath the open skies. What is it that makes him finally question this life? Is it possible to be a part of this machine, and still be human? Does Rooke fully understand the implications of this loss of freedom in the name of duty?
The Lieutenant was inspired by historical events, specifically by the life of William Dawes, a scholar-soldier who sailed from England in 1788 with the so-called First Fleet to transport British prisoners to New South Wales and to set up a colony there. What are your thoughts on using historical fact in a fictional story? How accurate can the history be when filtered through an author's contemporary perspective? Does it undermine the events in any way? In reference to her last book, The Secret River (another novel about Australian colonial history), Grenville explained that her aim was to make her book "more true than real." Discuss.
In the light of these two quotes, talk about the role of fate in the novel. "He was willing to accept that this was the orbit his life was intended to follow," (p. 41) and "New South Wales was part of a man's destiny" (p. 66). Would you agree that Rooke is more passive than active in following his destiny, certainly in the first part of the novel? What does he want from his life when he signs up for the journey to New South Wales? How far does he attain this? Does he have any particular aspirations for the future or is he too limited to see that far ahead?
What does Rooke's father mean by "Begin as you mean to go on" (p. 45)? How does Rooke apply it to his own life?"
Discuss the importance of Rooke's sister, Anne, in the novel. She is described as "clever enough to recognise the limits of what she understood" (p. 40). Why does Rooke consider such self-knowledge to be a gift? Would his own life have been significantly different if he had been less sure of his own intellect? Analyze the ways in which Rooke's odd intelligence hinders him.
Explore the theme of astronomy throughout the novel and consider the reasons that it appeals to Rooke. Chart his dependence on his beloved stars as his human relationships develop, and discuss his fading interest in the appearance of the comet that was his prime reason for travelling to New South Wales. How does his love of astronomy prepare him for his dealings with the new land and people of New South Wales?
In many ways Talbot Silk is a foil to his unlikely friend Rooke. Compare and contrast their characters throughout the novel, especially looking into their different perceptions of reality. Talk about Silk's need to embroider the truth, and Rooke's desire to pare it down to its bare essentials. How far do you think they succeed in finding the truth, or at least the truth that they want to perceive? What do their approaches to life and the world say about their personalities? Does Silk's character change or grow during his time in New South Wales?
Continuing this discussion, talk about the way in which Rooke deals with his arrival in New South Wales. Why does he need to quantify everything, plotting and recording the wind, weather, barometer, and thermometer? Is it a matter of carrying out his job or is this the only way he can connect with the world? How successful is he?
Discuss the theme of reinvention of self as it occurs throughout the novel. As Rooke moves from one place to another he constantly puts on a new face, trying to become a different person. How far is it possible to reinvent oneself, or is it more a shifting of character, a revealing of new facets? Consider Rooke's thoughts on moving into his observatory in New South Wales: "Out here, with his thoughts his only company, he could become nothing more or less than the person he was. Himself.It was as unexplored a land as this one" (p. 78). How aware is he of the uncharted depths of his own character?
As Rooke begins his tentative relationship with the Aborigines he opens himself up to a new culture, a new universe, and discovers a different self that lies within. What is it about this new country and these new people that enables Rooke to grow as a human? And what is it about his old selfcompared to Silk, for examplethat enables the Aborigines to be freer with him? Talk about the difference between the person the Aborigines refer to as "kamara" and the soldier Lieutenant Daniel Rooke.
As Rooke and the young girl Tagaran exchange words and sentences what does Rooke discover about the nature of language? How far is he correct in his early assessment of language? "But language was more than a list of words, more than a collection of fragments all jumbled together like a box of nuts and bolts ... it required someone who could dismantle the machine, see how it worked, and put it to use: a man of system, a man of science" (p. 152). Consider his later statement: "What had passed between Tagaran and himself had gone far beyond vocabulary or grammatical forms. It was the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground" (p. 186). What has happened to make Rooke understand language as something organic, as a way of mapping a relationship?
Talk about the friendship between Tagaran and Rooke. Were you able to accept it as completely platonic, or were you aware of sexual undertones? How old do you think Tagaran is as it isn't specifically stated in the novel? After refusing to shoot his gun to satisfy Tagaran's curiosity, Rooke is overcome by doubt and suspicion and believes that Tagaran has been using him for information. What were your feelings about this?
As Rooke wrestles with doubts about Tagaran and the true nature of their friendship, his whole worldview changes. Everything that he has held to be sacrosanct about the reliability of science is now put into question. Talk about the importance of "the language of doubt, the language that was prepared to admit I am not sure" (p. 233). Why is it such a huge emotional step for Rooke to accept this?
Since his arrival in New South Wales Rooke has realized that "a man could not travel along two different paths" (p. 218). Analyze some of the ways in which he has attempted to distance himself from his duties as a soldier. Has he ever truly believed that he could continue in this role forever? Find instances of his increasing inability to stay true to both sides, the army and the Aborigines. At what point does his attempt become naive, even ludicrous?
How far would you agree that the events of Rooke's life have been slowly moving toward his epiphany on the Botany Bay beach: "If an action was wrong, it did not matter whether it succeeded or not, or how many clever steps you took to make sure it failed. If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong ... If you were part of that machine, you were part of its evil" (p. 280). Consider how much he has changed since he realized, years earlier in Antigua, that "His Majesty had no use for any of the thoughts and sensibilities and wishes that a man might contain, much less the disobedience to which he might be inspired" (p. 29). With whom does his duty lie now?
Trace Rooke's emotional and moral development throughout the course of the novel ending with his death bed in Antigua. Talk about how far the lonely little boy from Portsmouth has come. Do you believe he finally found "a place, somewhere in the world, for the person he was" (p. 15)?
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin,
The Sea by John Banville,
Rabbit-proof Fence by Doris Pilkington,
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton,
Remembering Babylon by David Malouf,
The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes,
The Tree of Man by Patrick White,
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Guide by Lindsey Tate
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Grove Press.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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