KC Kirkley


A Puzzle to Confound: Reading English Passengers

In Matthew Kneale's seafaring novel, English Passengers, we have yet another multiiple POV tale (David Mitchell is to thank for the resurgence of this trend, I think), told through journals, letters, and vaguely defined autobiographical accounts of various characters involved in the British exploration and colonization of Tasmania in the mid-19th century. I'm not saying that I dislike the device of switching between many 1st person narrators.  In fact, the strategy has many advantages for both the reader and the writer.  Here, by circumspection, we encounter many sides of the truth, but never really get the white heat of the real thing.  Instead, we see one myopic view of it from this angle, and another from a different angle, and then yet another from a third angle, none of these apprehending "objectivity" by any means. In fact, it seems that the more perspectives we have on any particular event, the less sure we are of its meaning.

Enough of these generalities.

Kneale uses five central narrators throughout this novel, but incorporates many more minor perspectives.  The major voices include a Manx sea captain, an English vicar, a surgeon (turned natural philosopher), a botanist, and a Tasmanian Aborigine.  Other narrators include colonial settlers, a prisoner, colonial governors, wives of colonial governors, a missionary, etc.  They all play their parts in the larger plot arc, and they are all interesting, indeed.  Each is rendered with care so that no two voices sound the same, including differences in diction, syntax, and, of course, beliefs. The thing that gets me, though, is that all of these characters (especially the central five) seem like absolute caricatures.  It is, I believe, an unfortunate result of Kneale's attempt to give each character such a distinguishable voice - they turn in to cliches of themselves.

Not that this is a problem that dooms the novel.  On the contrary, it adds to the humor of the work, which is substantial, and the story is (dare I say it? Yes!) a swashbuckling affair, indeed.  Kneale includes an ocean's worth of adventure, mishap, and mayhem, and the story is just pure fun to read.  Nor is the book without insights.  The Aborigine (Peevay) is the most insightful (yes, he's dangerously close to the "noble savage" cliche), and his "catch phrase" sums up his assessment of the European colonial machine: it is "a puzzle to confound."  Indeed.  Finally, At the heart of the plot is a conflict between religion and science (the vicar and the surgeon).  This conflict doesn't do the true debate justice, as neither character has a very solid grasp of his own belief system, let alone that of his adversary, but nuggets of wisdom do shine through.  Near the end of the novel, the Manx sea captain reflects, momentarily, on the events of the story (at least the ones that he knows) and comments that "It's never being right that matters, after all, it's being believed, which is another animal entirely" (427).  I'd guess that's about as tidy a summation of the theme as there can be.  This religion-science debate isn't about truth, nor is the story.  It's about manipulation and persuasion and being believed.  I guess not much has changed since.