A room made of leaves by Kate Grenville
Text Publishing, 2020. ISBN: 9781922330024.
(Age: Senior secondary) Highly recommended. 'Our nation rides on the sheep's back' and John Macarthur was supposedly the 'father of the wool industry' but, as Kate Grenville points out, the merino sheep were largely developed whilst Macarthur was actually in England for two lengthy periods being prosecuted for crimes in Australia. Grenville suggests that perhaps the Father of the Wool Industry was actually the Mother of the Wool Industry, his wife, Elizabeth Macarthur, a figure lost to history. What remains in the historical record, the letters of Elizabeth, reveal very little, but a closer more clever examination of her written words, could present an entirely different picture of the life of the Macarthurs. It is this idea that Grenville pursues. She imagines the life of the forgotten Elizabeth, as another example of the neglected contribution of so many pioneer women; for history only tells us of the exploits of the men. Grenville imagines the discovery of a memoir, and shares it with us, as an alternative picture from a woman's point of view.
Grenville's novel examines the limited prospects for women, denied education and dependent on marriage for security. Elizabeth fails to heed the warnings to 'keep herself safe' and her moment of wilfulness leads to a necessary marriage to the taciturn Captain Macarthur. Then it becomes the problem of how to manage his moods, and make some kind of life together in New South Wales.
A strong theme throughout the novel is the idea of false stories: from the need for women to protect their reputation, to the colonialists' versions of the conflict with the Aboriginal people, to the innuendos about the astronomer William Dawes' relationship with young Patyegarang. It just depends on who is telling the story.
Life in the colony managing a sheep farm, alone for long periods without her husband, could be imagined as one of hardship and loneliness. However for Elizabeth, thrown on her own resources, it actually becomes an opportunity to discover her true self.
Grenville's book is well researched and she even makes use of Elizabeth's own words from her letters to suggest a hidden alternative interpretation of her life. It is historical fiction but perhaps creates a more true understanding of the past.
Themes: Women, New South Wales colony, Aboriginal people, Conflict, False stories.