Review Blog

Nov 16 2020

A room made of leaves by Kate Grenville

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Text Publishing, 2020. ISBN: 9781922330024.
(Age: secondary/adult) Highly recommended. Historical writing at its best, this tale of Australia's colonial experiences, told through an imagined voice, gives a background and authenticity to one of Australia's storehouse of overlooked women: Elizabeth Macarthur. In reality there is little known of her life, and Grenville has taken what has been written down, fleshing it out through her 'discovered' diaries written as an older woman, looking over her long and eventful life.
Her diary is a recreation of a time when marriage was an alternative to living as an ageing spinster relying on the charity of a brother or nephew's family. And Elizabeth made that choice, joining someone she did not know to go to Sydney Cove where he could see openings for advancement and wealth, as befitted his grand image of himself.
Their hasty marriage, saw Elizabeth questioning what she had married: a cold, calculating, quick tempered man, bent on climbing the ladder of opportunity via his contacts gained through his years of army service. To this end he accepted a position with the New South Wales Corp, traveling to Australia on the Neptune, one of the worst ships of the Second Fleet, where he argued with the captain of both the ship and the regiment.
Arguments continued as he built up grievances, culminating in a court case in London, where he spent four years, (1801-5) leaving Elizabeth with their newly acquired property at Paramatta. An argument with Bligh saw him sent to England for court martial in 1809, not returning until 1817.
Grenville shows us how Elizabeth's background and skills, developed while living with her grandfather on a sheep farm in Devon, enabled her to establish Elizabeth Farm as the mainstay of the Australian sheep and wool industry.
Colonial society is viewed through the eyes of this long suffering woman, transported to the other ends of the earth, saddled with a man determined to find fault, rubbing shoulders with Captain Tench, Governor Arthur Phillip, astronomer William Dawes, as well as the Aboriginal people of Sydney Cove. The diary is an expose of life at Sydney Cove, giving the reader an enticing look behind the scenes. Told by Elizabeth it gives insight into the restrictions on women's lives at the time and new insight into one of the unsung founders of Australia. Themes: Pioneers and pioneer life - New South Wales, Women in Australia - Social conditions, Australia - History -1788-1851, Married persons, Secrecy, Pioneers, Macarthur, Elizabeth, Marriage, Australian history, Biographical fiction, Macarthur, John, Australia, Sydney (NSW) - History, Convicts, Aboriginal resistance, Astronomy, William Dawes, Captain Tench, John Macarthur, Wool industry.
Fran Knight

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