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English Passengers: A Novel Paperback – January 16, 2001

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 446 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (January 16, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 038549744X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385497442
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (110 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #444,224 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Christopher Columbus was looking for a passage to India when he ran full-tilt boogie into the Americas. One of the narrators of Matthew Kneale's ambitious historical novel English Passengers has more modest aspirations: Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley wants only to smuggle a little tobacco, brandy, and French pornography from the Isle of Mann to a secluded beach in England. Yet somehow in the process, he and his crew end up weighing anchor for Australia. Worse, they're forced to carry three temperamental Englishmen bound for Tasmania on a mission to discover the exact location of the Garden of Eden. The year is 1857, and the study of geology is beginning to make serious inroads into areas of religious doctrine. When the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson runs across a scientific treatise that puts the age of Silurian limestone somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand years, he is scandalized: "This was despite the fact that the Bible tells, and with great clarity, that the earth was created a mere six thousand years ago." His many attempts to prove the Bible's accuracy lead, eventually, to a scientific expedition comprising himself, Timothy Renshaw, a dilettante botanist, and Dr. Thomas Potter.

Now jump back 30 years, to 1828, when a revolution of sorts is stirring on the island of Tasmania. Over the years, white settlers have been encroaching on aboriginal land and relations have deteriorated into violence. At the heart of the action is Peevay, a young half-breed abandoned by his aborigine mother, who had been kidnapped and raped by a white escaped convict. Now his vengeful mother is leading a war against the whites, and Peevay, desperate to win her love, has joined her. Chapters from the past narrated by Peevay and augmented by letters and dispatches from white settlers alternate with the sections told by Kewley, Wilson, Renshaw, and Potter. Eventually, of course, the two time lines intersect with momentous results.

War, mutiny, shipwreck, and not a little farce make English Passengers a gripping read, but it is Matthew Kneale's literary ventriloquism that renders it remarkable. In a novel with so many different points of view, the individuality of each voice stands out. There is, for instance, the mutinous Dr. Potter, whose descent into paranoia and egomania results in diary entries reminiscent of a 19th-century psychotic Bridget Jones: "Manxmen = treacherous even to v. last. Self heard Brew (lashed to mainmast as per usual) instructing helmsman to steer N.N.W. When self questioned he re. this he claiming we = carried into Bay of Biscay by difficult sea currents + must set course to avoid Breton Peninsular. He pointing to distant point of land to N.N.E. claiming this = Brittany. Self = doubtful." But perhaps the most compelling voice in English Passengers belongs to Peevay, who paints a vivid picture of aboriginal life in a foreign tongue he nonetheless makes his own:

When we sat so in the dark, after our eating, Tartoyen told us stories--secret stories that I will not say even now--about the moon and sun, and how everyone got made, from men and wallaby to seal and kangaroo rat and so. Also he told who was in those rocks and mountains and stars, and how they went there. Until, by and by, I could hear stories as we walked across the world, and divine how it got so, till I knew the world as if he was some family fellow of mine.
By the close of this epic tale, the world Peevay had known is gone forever and the lives of the Manx sailors and English passengers have been irrevocably changed. Based on real events in Tasmanian history, Matthew Kneale's novel delivers a home truth about Australia's brutal colonial past, even as it conveys the wonder and allure of the age of exploration. --Alix Wilber --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

The brutal hand of British imperialism provides the foundation for this broad historical swashbuckler about the English colonization of Tasmania in the early and mid-19th century. U.K. author Kneale debuts stateside with this lengthy novel of hapless smugglers, desperate convicts, simpering bureaucrats, mad vicars and displaced aborigines. The English passengers are the Reverend Wilson, a vicar determined to prove that Tasmania was the site of the original Garden of Eden, and Doctor Potter, a ruthless scientist equally determined to prove Wilson wrong and gain fame in the victory. They're on their way to Tasmania aboard the good ship Sincerity, commanded by Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, a high-seas smuggler and rascal of renown. This is an unpleasant voyage for everyone, especially Kewley, for he has been forced to charter his ship in order to escape punishment for dodging customs duties on his illicit cargoes. Storms, pirates and foul tempers, however, are just the prelude to the hardships that await everyone when they land in Tasmania. British self-righteousness in forcing civilization and Christianity on the aborigines causes wholesale slaughter and subjugation of the islanders, and the natives are more than just restless. Wilson and Potter's overland expedition is guided by Peevay, a wily aborigine not about to knuckle under to the white man. Of course, the expedition is a bloody disaster. Murder, madness, betrayal, mutiny and shipwreck spice up the action and provide intricate plot twists with surprising and satisfying resolutions, particularly for Captain Kewley. This rich tale is told by 20 different voices skipping back and forth across the years, but somehow Kneale manages to keep the reader from becoming confused. Kneale's careful research and colorful storytelling result in an impressive epic. BOMC featured selection. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

Though I really liked this novel, it did have what seemed to be a rushed ending.
Yet, for such an elaborate and sprawling narrative, Kneale does a wonderful job of maintaining a page-turning pace by creating distinctive voices for each character.
A. Ross
Kneale deservedly won the British Whitbread literature prizefor this great piece of historical farce.
Vincent Toolan

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Kendall VINE VOICE on June 21, 2004
Format: Paperback
The once popular genre, associated with Richardson, Laclos, Scott, Fielding, Sterne and Austen has pretty much fallen out of fashion. Kneale revives it brilliantly here. He employs 19 seperate narrators to tell this tale of exploitation, genocide, greed, adventure and misadventure. In the hands of a lesser artist, such a crazy quilt arrangement would lead to chaos. Kneale manages the seperate voices like a master marionette artist. Each character rings true, even the most eccentric. Each scene, even the most fantastic, remains true to the logic of the book as a whole. No small accomplishment, indeed.
The narrative focuses primarily on the arrival of Europeans (primarily English settlers) to the island of Tasmania and to the expansion of their "civilization" in the middle of the 19th century. In order for this civilization to thrive and expand, the aboriginal population had to go. They just didn't fit in. Several of them, including one of the narrator's (Peavy's)mother, were downright intractable. Conflict ensues. Though the aboriginal peoples come out on the short end of the stick, one half-caste does enact some good old fashioned revenge towards the end of the tale.
The other main thread deals with a scientific exhibition led by a minister (Wilson) in search of The Garden of Eden, and a doctor (Potter) interested in collecting human samples of various peoples in the hope of advancing his theory of a natural order of races, just as Darwin had advanced his theory of the order of species. A third English passenger, a young geologist named Renshaw, doesn't figure as prominently in the plot as the aforementioned, but does provide some clear-headed satirical insight into the goings on.
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59 of 64 people found the following review helpful By taking a rest HALL OF FAME on March 22, 2000
Format: Hardcover
If you have ever read a work by Umberto Eco you may feel confused, albeit slightly less so, when reading "English Passengers".
Firstly, I suggest starting with the Epilogue. This spoils nothing, as it is a written explanation of historical facts in the book, that when known to the reader, will make reading more enjoyable. The same is to be said for the section "The Anglo-Manx Dialect". The Author does a good job of placing these words in context, but it wasn't until I read this section that I learned this language was not only a true language, but also Celtic with relations to Ireland and Scotland.
These suggestions are not meant to put you off, rather make your read a more enjoyable one than I might have had, and a finish that was more satisfying for me. As I mentioned I felt a bit like I had an Umberto Eco, "What did I miss hangover" but that was my failing not the Author's.
The only item that I could not get accustomed to was the diary style of one of the primary characters. Possibly because he was so annoying, his form of journal notation just reinforced his loathsomeness.
This is a great read. The Author's ability to manage almost 2-dozen different voices, over half a century, that comes together at the end in a brilliant manner, is no small feat.
There is very little in this book that does not involve commentary from the Author, albeit through the voices he either creates, or borrows from History. Empire building, religion, government, race relations, are just a few of the topics. And while I would never suggest this is a light read, or one that constantly lifts your spirits, you will be well rewarded by the conclusion.
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40 of 44 people found the following review helpful By A. Hickman on September 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Matthew Kneale's "English Passengers" is the best novel I've read all year and the best historical fiction since "The Sot-Weed Factor." Comedy and tragedy mix comfortably in this tale of a hapless Vicar's irrational belief that the Biblical Garden of Eden was located in Tasmania. His obsession brings together an uproarious mix of Englishmen, Manxmen, and Aborigines, as Vicar Wilson's voyage of discovery turns into an indictment of empire and racism. The novel offers a rich tapestry of plot and character, with the Manx sea captain, Illian Quillian Kewley, a true original, as its emotional center. It is Kewley's humanity that keeps the book--as well as the Sincerity, his ship--on course, even when events turn tragic, as in the genocide of Tasmania's aboriginal population. Kneale's ventriloquism has been noted elsewhere; read "English Passengers" to experience it yourself. Here, indeed, is God's plenty.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Osama Siddique on January 18, 2001
Format: Paperback
Few books manage to provide a hilariously wry and cynical view of things and yet retain the solemn ampathy and decorum which befits perhaps the treatment of a dark chapter of history -- in this case that of colonial exploitation. 'English Passengers' achieves that difficult distinction in true style. Mr. Kneale sets his highly enjoyable novel against the backdrop of the genocide in Tasmania. I realize that it sounds rather obnoxious when I use the words genocide and enjoyable in the same sentence but allow me to explain myself. Mr. Kneale seems to be an exponent to the belief that in order to do justice to a harrowing period of history, one does not necessarily have to write an unreadable book. Therefore, inspite of his great sensitivity to the subject, his poignant sympathy for the vanquished and bitter contempt for the conquerors, his novel manages to be not only touching and thought provoking in a very profound sense but hilarious because of his great talent for creating self-righteous and smug characters brimful with dogma and pettiness. The cast of characters is colourful and engrossing and he manages to give them distinctive, believable and highly individual voices so that the beautifully flowing narrative is simply a treat to read. I seldom laugh out aloud while reading a book and apart from Mark Twain I can't think of anyone else ( at least gauging from what I have managed to read over the past few years --maybe the fault lies in what I am reading) who has provided so much joy out of clever turns of phrase and incisive exploration of the eccentricities of human character. Written like a traditional sea voyage yarn, the novel provides colourful settings and great interplay between the characters while it unfolds a heart rending rendition of the worst of colonialism.Read more ›
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