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A Room Made of Leaves

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Dawes had been assigned to join the first fleet to make astronomical observations on the journey as well as to set up an observatory. There's a great insight into the early history of Australia here - with attitudes making it clear that white settlers and natives had conflict and the damage that these settlers were doing by partitioning the land.

A beautiful, intimate portrait of a woman who history has left mostly in mystery, in the shadow of her husband. After the American Independence war his income was halved and after an unsuccessful posting in Gibraltar he secured a position as lieutenant in the NSW corps raising his profile but at what cost? Grenville cleverly uses Elizabeth’s bland and pleasant missives home, showing that they were a carefully constructed fiction. We watched as one dived into the water — with such a smack, it must have hurt — missed its prey, wheeled up, smacked down again, staggered into the air. If, like me, you knew absolutely nothing then your judgment of the book will be based solely on the quality of the writing and the skill with which the story is told.The notion of not really getting the full take on current events, seemed as probable in events in that era.

Kate Grenville has now written several books set in the early years of the British colonisation of New South Wales and while this one treads slightly different territory to its predecessors, there is necessarily some cross over of events and personnel. Elizabeth Veale grows up in Cornwall, her social and financial position giving her limited options in life. She was a remarkable woman, to have managed the gigantic enterprise of the family business at a time when women were expected to be helpless and ignorant and stay at home with the children. Another book in her fantastic collection of work about early Australian colonial times and it’s at least as good, if not even better, than all the others… Absolutely brilliant. This story is inspired by the real life of one woman’s trails and tribulations against the world, with the author taking material from newly-found letters and weaving a gorgeous tale of love, loss, hope, fear, and learning you can take charge of your future no matter who tells you otherwise!The myth about Elizabeth is that, when John was away in England for two long periods, she kept the family sheep empire going, a loving, industrious, pious helpmeet to her husband.

This novel changes the way you think about the earliest days of the colonial experience in Australia: about the role of women, the fickleness of the official narrative, the power of conversation, and the possibility of love. Forced to travel with him to New South Wales, she arrives to find Sydney Town a brutal, dusty, hungry place of makeshift shelters, failing crops, scheming and rumours. At the centre of A Room Made of Leaves is one of the most toxic issues of our own age: the seductive appeal of false stories. And there is the wonderful image of a determined gull, observed by Elizabeth and her lover at the end of their affair: “Gulls came. Despite having no feelings for her husband she begins a new life there; one that will last until her death in 1850.Having re-read this to prepare for a Book Club discussion, I am still captivated by the story-telling skill of Kate Grenville. Acknowledgment is presented here as the beginning of redemption: “I am prepared to look in the eye what we have done,” she insists, to admit the “hard truth” of colonial theft and wrong-doing. In her introduction Kate Grenville tells, tongue firmly in cheek, of discovering a long-hidden box containing that memoir. Traditionally he has been regarded as the founder of Australia's wool industry and Elizabeth has been acknowledged as helping him in years when he was back in England and she still in Australia with their children.

It's beautifully intimate, and Elizabeth Veale is a wonderful protagonist who not only enriches the countryside of Devon in earlier chapters but becomes a key fixture in the rapidly developing Sydney. Shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2021, A Room Made of Leaves opens with that oft-used literary device, the discovery of a hidden cache of documents. The setting was good, the style literary but somehow I was left feeling unsatisfied, there just wasn't enough intimate detail to make me feel I'd really experienced the story, just watched it from the sidelines. Dawes has already started to document some of their language for which Elizabeth also tries to learn. It also touched on the frontier violence in the early days of colonisation in Australia, but then sort of breezed on by.It was screened by bushes that framed a view up and down the stream: another airy room made of leaves. His letters – far from bland and sedate – show him to have been a clever, ruthless bully, a dangerous man to cross, violent and unforgiving towards anyone who tried to go against him. It shines a light on what life would have been like for a woman in the early days of the settlement in Australia and the relationship between the early settlers and the Aboriginal people.

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