Summary and book reviews of The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

The Lieutenant

by Kate Grenville

The Lieutenant
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2009, 320 pages
    Sep 2010, 320 pages

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Book Summary

Winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant - a stunning follow-up to her Commonwealth Writers' Prize-winning book, The Secret River, is a gripping story about friendship, self-discovery, and the power of language along the unspoiled shores of 1788 New South Wales.

As a boy, Daniel Rooke was always an outsider. Ridiculed in school and misunderstood by his parents, Daniel could only hope, against all the evidence, that he would one day find his place in life. When he enters the marines and travels to Australia as a lieutenant on the First Fleet, Daniel finally sees his chance for a new beginning.

As his countrymen struggle to control their cargo of convicts and communicate with those who already inhabit the land, Daniel immediately constructs an observatory to chart the stars and begin the scientific work he prays will make him famous. But the place where they have landed will prove far more revelatory than the night sky. Out on his isolated point, Daniel comes to intimately know the local Aborigines, and forges a remarkable connection with one young girl, Tagaran, that will forever change the course of his life. As the strained coexistence between the Englishmen and the native tribes collapses into violence, Daniel is forced to decide between dedication to his work, allegiance to his country, and his protective devotion to Tagaran and her people.

Inspired by the notebooks of astronomer William Dawes, The Lieutenant is a remarkable story about the poignancy and emotional power of a friendship that defies linguistic and cultural barriers, and shows one ordinary man that he is capable of exceptional courage.

The Lieutenant

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

At the dame school in Portsmouth they thought him stupid. His first day there was by coincidence his fifth birthday, the third of March 1767. He took his place behind the desk with his mother’s breakfast oatmeal cosy in his stomach and his new jacket on, happy to be joining the world beyond his home.

Mrs Bartholomew showed him a badly executed engraving with the word ‘cat’ underneath. His mother had taught him his letters and he had been reading for a year. He could not work out what Mrs Bartholomew wanted. He sat at his desk, mouth open.

That was the first time he was paddled with Mrs. Bartholomew’s old hairbrush for failing to respond to a question so simple he had not thought to answer it.

He could not become interested in the multiplication tables. While the others chanted through them, impatient for the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Reading Group Guide for The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

  1. 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.

  2. 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 ...

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BookBrowse Review


The Lieutenant revisits the same period Grenville wrote about in The Secret River (2005), the first years of the Port Jackson penal colony, but this is a more compact, leaner work. Although based on the diaries of William Dawes this is not your typical historical fiction - Grenville is as much, if not more, focused on observing the mind of her protagonist than she is in exploring the vista he beholds. As we inhabit his mind, his moral dilemmas become ours, and we share his isolation. Written with a poet's sensibility, this is an adventure into the nature of language and culture and of how people can connect across seemingly impenetrable barriers.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

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Media Reviews

New York Times - Alison McCulloch

The Lieutenant” is less a story of colonial struggle and encounter than “The Secret River,” and more the richly imagined portrait of a deeply introspective, and quite remarkable, man.

Los Angeles Times - Bill Marx

The Lieutenant compels as a historical novel exploring the sins of Australia's colonial past, an admirable testament to the necessity that the West learn to appreciate rather than condemn the Other. But Grenville's most thrilling achievement is to filter that lesson in social acceptance through the computational consciousness of a man whose head is in the stars.

Publishers Weekly

Grenville's storytelling shines: the backdrop is lush and Daniel is a wonderful creation—a conflicted, curious and endearing eccentric.

Kirkus Reviews

... The narrative focuses on the meditative inner life of its main character; too many other possibilities are unexplored ... An involving, affecting novel that should have been even better.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Grenville displays a graceful touch with the characters and the history that so clearly move her, and her writing sparkles with life. Highly recommended for readers of literary fiction.

The Guardian - Jay Parini

Although based on the diaries of William Dawes, an English officer who travelled with a fleet bringing the first convicts to Australia in 1888, The Lieutenant should not be mistaken for history, as Grenville warns us in a detailed author's note. She has repossessed history here, transmogrifying what she has found. She occupies the mind of Rooke with a kind of vivid insistence, and his isolation - and moral dilemmas - become ours.

The Independent - Katy Guest

Between the words and among them, this is a profoundly uplifting novel – one that leaves you understanding Rooke's premise: that "Truth [needs] hundreds of words, or none."

The Telegraph (UK)

Basing her tale on real events and a real historical character, Kate Grenville has brought imagination and compassion to the source of so much of Australia’s retroactive hand-wringing. What distinguishes her portrayal of Aboriginal culture is that for once appreciation, sympathy and admiration get the better of impotent guilt.

Sydney Morning Herald - Andrew Rimmer

When Rooke's and Tagaran's explorations of language flower into a relationship - half playful, half amorous - Grenville starts taking considerable risks. This kind of material bristles with opportunities for mawkishness. The coolness of Grenville's prose ensures, however, that matters do not get out of hand. This section of the novel is tender and touching and greatly enhanced by understatement....The other sections of The Lieutenant are, perhaps, a shade more predictable. But Grenville reveals throughout a highly professional writer's sureness of touch. ... I found much to enjoy and to admire in this relatively brief novel.

The Age (Australia)

[The Lieutenant] glows with life: imaginative in its re-creations, respectful of what cannot be imagined, and thoughtful in its interrogation of the past. ... Grenville's most intellectually sophisticated novel to date.

Reader Reviews

Cloggie Downunder

A moving Aussie tale
Kate Grenville’s latest novel, “The Lieutenant” is a beautifully crafted work. The Lieutenant in question, Daniel Rooke, is based on William Dawes, a soldier in His Majesty’s Marine Force on the First Fleet which arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788. Dawes...   Read More


The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
This book is a great read. Kate Grenville writes with a prose of words that become a visual and mental picture. The historical background adds a new dimension to a story you may think you know. Questions of culture and morality left me thinking ...   Read More


The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
A quiet, thought provoking book that was so well written and interesting. A story based loosely on a William Dawes. The Lieutenant is the story of a young man that never quite belonged as he was a genius and maybe autistic. I found him shy, naive, ...   Read More

Ruth Harris

The Lieutenant
Kate Grenville does an excellent job of writing in a 1800's Englishman's voice. Daniel Rooke and others travel from England to New South Wales. Daniel, a student of math, astronomy and languages, goes to study weather and the nighttime skies. Though ...   Read More

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The Australian Penal Colonies
You might wonder why Britain would choose to send ships filled with convicts and their jailors to, quite literally, the other side of the world.  The answer is simple economics.

In the 1780s, the British population was increasing fast, as were the effects of the Industrial Revolution which led to the displacement of a great many people who, without land, rights or jobs, were reduced to stealing. 

Meanwhile, Britain, having lost the American Colonies, was on the lookout for new land to colonize.  The east coast of Australia, charted by The Endeavor in 1770, looked like it had potential.  So it was decided that instead of using slaves, the infrastructure of the new colony ...

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