I have a soft spot for literary adventure tales. It’s why, for example, I’m a big fan of certain of T.C. Boyle’s novels and also why Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is on my personal best novel shortlist. So it was with great pleasure this summer that I finally read Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, a book I suspected I might enjoy when I first heard about it several years ago.
Kneale pairs two plots that by the book’s final quarter have converged. One plot centers on the swift and brutal demise of Tasmania’s indigenous people upon contact with English colonists in the early 1800s. The other follows an expedition, around the same time, led by pastor and geology enthusiast Reverend Geoffrey Wilson whose research has led him to believe that the Garden of Eden lies in Tasmania. It’s a volatile mix, involving Manx smugglers; eugenicists; prison colonies; long ocean voyages; short chapters in the maritime literary tradition of Moby Dick; clever narrative devices like diary entries, scientific notes, and inventive use of dialect; and ample humor. It’s the sort of book that has you running for atlases and encyclopedias to try to learn by what alchemy the author has turned history into such invigorating fiction.