This is an engaging book; the structure episodic, as befits its diary form. It is dedicated “to all those whose stories have been silenced” – not only women such as Elizabeth Macarthur, but the Indigenous people of Australia, too. “I can see no way to put right all the wrongs,” Elizabeth tells us. At least, however, “I am prepared to look in the eye what we have done.” That is the end of this novel, but it is also a kind of beginning.
This is colonial history without the gloss, so soon enough Elizabeth becomes disturbed by the settlers’ terrible treatment of the Aborigines. Grenville cleverly uses Elizabeth’s bland and pleasant missives home, showing that they were a carefully constructed fiction. The real Elizabeth — passionate, clever and endlessly resilient — is brilliantly conjured.
Her latest, A Room Made of Leaves, is narrated by Elizabeth Macarthur, a young Englishwoman of strong character and little fortune, who marries a tormented, fiercely ambitious soldier and travels with him to the new penal colony in New South Wales...
Based on the real life of a white Australian pioneer, A Room Made of Leaves is the absorbing story of a woman discovering herself in the vast expanse of a new world, told in rich, insightful prose.
Presented as Elizabeth’s memoir, composed in old age, and laid out as a series of short chapters, some no longer than a few paragraphs, the book itself is full of blank space. The historical terrain mapped out by the words may seem familiar, but through these repeated narrative silences Grenville asks us to remember that a novel, too, is a room of leaves. The story within forms just one more version of events, forever incomplete. The only disappointment in this beautiful and subtle novel is the final chapter, in which Elizabeth offers an explicit apology for the depredations of the colonisers to the people whose land they stole. It isn’t necessary. The novel amply makes the point.