English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

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Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, a Manx smuggler.  The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, a country parson.  Jack Harp, an escaped convict.  Peevay, a mixed-race aborigine. Dr Thomas Potter, a race-supremacy theorist.  Timothy Renshaw, a reluctant botanist.  These are just some of the colourful characters that narrate this extraordinary book.

Spanning a period of fifty years, from 1820 to 1870, it tells the story of the British colonisation of Tasmania and is, without doubt, one of the best books I’ve ever read.  And I do mean ever.

English Passengers won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2000, and was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize but lost out to Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. Now Atwood is one of my all-time favourite authors and I love Blind Assassin but if I’d been on that Booker panel I’d have voted for Kneale’s novel – it’s that good.  It’s so good in fact, I’m awestruck Kneale could hold the multifarious strands together for the necessary time to create a coherent book without his head exploding!

If you think that means English Passengers is worthy but dull, think again.  It’s savage and witty, emotional and intellectual, but, above all, it’s a rollicking good story with an extremely satisfying ending.  So rather than wear out the Thesaurus looking for superlatives I’ll simply say: JUST READ IT!  (Even if you think historical fiction isn’t your thing.  Perhaps especially if you think historical fiction isn’t your thing.)

***** One of the best books I’ve ever read


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