Everybody makes mistakes, and last summer, Salon Books made a big one by not reviewing Matthew Kneale's marvelous novel "English Passengers" when it first came out in hardcover. We should have known better (the book was published under the Nan Talese imprint, after all), and a few months later the Brits showed us up by nominating it for a Booker Prize and giving it the Whitbread Award for best book of the year. And then, at last, we read it, discovering it to be an alchemical mix of the epic and the intimate, the hilarious and the heartbreaking -- elements that can seldom be successfully combined. It's also more fun than we've found between book covers in quite some time.
"English Passengers" has just come out in paperback, at last giving us a chance to redeem ourselves. It's the story of two journeys. The first is undertaken in 1857 by a motley assortment of men from the British Isles aboard the good ship Sincerity. This misnamed vessel has a hollow hull in which its captain and crew, who all hail from the Isle of Man, have hidden a load of contraband French brandy and tobacco. Through a farcical series of misadventures, the Manx smugglers wind up taking a very long detour from their intended trip to the English coast; in order to elude the British authorities, they have to hire themselves out to a small party of Englishmen headed for Tasmania.
The leader of the British expedition, the Rev. Geoffrey Wilson, believes that he can prove Darwin wrong by demonstrating that the Australian island is the original site of the Garden of Eden. He's also looking for evidence to support another pet theory, which holds that the molten rock that once covered the Earth "had indeed cooled at great speed, being made possible by a process I termed Divine Refrigeration," thereby preserving the biblical pronouncement that the planet is only 6,000 years old. Dr. Thomas Potter, a dour, secretive fanatic with elaborate theories of his own -- about the character and quality of various racial "types" and for which he is gathering "specimens" -- wants to wrest control of the project from the reverend.
The book's second, darker journey is undertaken, unwillingly, by Peevay, the son of a Tasmanian aboriginal woman who was raped by a white man. "English Passengers" is a patchwork of first-person accounts (some based on true stories), but Peevay's voice is the most engaging and, ultimately, the most piercing. His is a cobbled-together form of English, with words and phrases borrowed from convict slang ("piss-poor") and scripture ("I fell down hard, with a grievous blow"), but he's eloquent all the same. We first meet Peevay as a bright, resourceful child who relishes his tribe's nomadic life, and then follow him through their increasingly disastrous encounters with the island's colonizers and on to a bitter, conflicted adulthood. In the process, his voice hardens and his horizon constricts; we feel the loss of a way of life, an entire people, really, in the crushing of Peevay's exuberant spirit.
Kneale balances the novel exquisitely; it takes up such momentously painful subjects as colonization and racism, but it never sinks under the weight. As a counterpart to the tragic Peevay, there's Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, the irrepressible Manx ship's captain, whose ingenuity gets taxed to its limits by his abysmal luck. The Manxmen have approximately the same uncongenial relationship to the English that the Irish do, and some of the novel's funniest moments hinge on Capt. Kewley's deft manipulation of the Brits' arrogant, priggish self-involvement. He buffaloes customs officials by displaying a shrine to the queen and her progeny in the ship's dining cabin ("My favorite is the Victoria. Now there's royalty, is there not?" -- actually the statuette conceals a lever that opens the secret cargo chamber) and takes a dim view of his passengers: "Truly, you never did see such a clever and pestful trio as these, all disagreeing with themselves and taking their great clever brains for a little stroll on the deck."
Remarkably, even the climax of "English Passengers," a sojourn in the jungle that takes the characters into "Heart of Darkness" territory, followed by a hijacking of the Sincerity that's even more appalling, never loses its buoyancy. In fact, Kneale manages something you rarely see anymore: a genuinely artful and satisfying ending. At their worst, the English, as Kneale suggests, have been a heavy load for many people to carry, but this novel, for all its intellectual and moral heft, feels as light as a feather.