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In Words and Numbers

By Margaret Black

The Lieutenant

By Kate Grenville

Atlantic Monthly Press, 307 pages, $24

With The Lieutenant, novelist Kate Grenville follows up on her prize-winning novel The Secret River, about the first white settlement in Australia. This time her central figure is not a convict but a young astronomer, Daniel Rooke, who has joined the First Fleet, mostly because he is poor and needs a job, and partly because he hopes to track a comet that will reappear this time only in the Southern Hemisphere. Lonely and isolated as a boy, Rooke was set apart by his extraordinary gift for numbers, perfect pitch, and an unusual capacity for languages. These qualities were recognized early, so he was scooped up and given a good education, but not even the Astronomer Royal, who befriends him, can get him an appointment as an astronomer.

Rooke joins His Majesty’s Marines, where he toasts, along with the others, “to war, and a sickly season”—advancement being as tough in the military as in astronomy. His ship sails to fight the rebels in America, where Rooke is enlightened as to the consequences of disobeying orders and suffers a near-fatal wound. He recovers, but still has no work. When he learns that an “expedition” needs an astronomer, Rooke doesn’t hesitate, and, once again in uniform, he is soon helping navigate to Botany Bay. That Grenville accomplishes all this in 36 pages, complete with several marvelous, well-defined characters and convincing life-altering events, demonstrates her breathtaking control and discipline.

Once in Australia, Rooke manages to escape living in the slowly emerging settlement of Sydney by claiming that his work requires utter darkness and that his telescope must be anchored on higher, firmer ground. Mostly, of course, Rooke needs to get away from people in general and guard duty in particular. Eventually, because Rooke becomes fascinated with the idea of learning the Aborigines’ language, he slowly develops a friendship with a young Aboriginal girl, Tagaran. Here Grenville perfectly conveys the complexities of learning a language that is utterly different in sound, syntax, and concept from every other language one knows. Despite his ear, Rooke cannot easily replicate its sounds, and then he has difficulty breaking the sounds into their word components. Ultimately he realizes that “you do not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who spoke it with you. His friendship with Tagaran was not a list of objects, or the words for things eaten or not eaten, thrown or not thrown. It was the slow constructing of the map of a relationship.”

Things fall apart, as they must—was the relationship a genuine friendship or was Tagaran a plant by her people to discover what they could about this enemy?—and Rooke is sent back to England. Although he travels widely, doing antislavery work, and dies in distant Antigua, he never returns to Australia.

The fictional Rooke is based on a real mathematician and astronomer named William Dawes, who traveled with the First Fleet, learned the Aboriginal language with the aid of a young woman, and later engaged in antislavery work. But Grenville’s interest is not in reportage. She, like many authors these days—Daniel Kehlmann (Measuring the World) and David Leavitt (The Indian Clerk) to name two—is fascinated by individuals with extraordinary mathematical and scientific capacities, people often isolated or cut off from ordinary human interaction, who nevertheless find a way to communicate despite the barriers.

Grenville then takes her investigation one step further. Rooke is a man devoted to hard, verifiable facts and the reliable operations of math. He never ventures into the realm of the imaginary or make-believe, not even into the polite fictions of social intercourse. So the author pairs him with a character aptly named Silk, another young marine who is social smoothness personified, always able to joke, get along with, and entertain those around him, making friends and defusing anger or tension. Silk wants to be a writer, Rooke finally realizes, and has joined the trip to Australia as a soldier because a London publisher has promised to produce the book Silk plans to write about the convict colony. The dance between Rooke and Silk initially dramatizes an age-old debate between language and numbers, between truth (or reality) and not-quite truth (stories or altogether lies). The two are friends, but mostly because Silk makes that so. By the time Rooke can no longer be the friend he used to be, however, it is because he has learned through his attempt to speak the Aboriginal language that reality cannot always be understood by assemblages of fact any more than communication emerges from mere strings of words.

It is a small added pleasure that would-be author Silk, while a pleasing, sympathetic character in many regards, is not the focus of Grenville’s favor, even though she shows that he and his talents teach Rooke a great deal. In the context of this story, Grenville seems to be saying that Rooke’s pursuit of truth ultimately requires greater rigor and courage than the writing of fiction does. Yet, in the writing of this very novel, the author has obviously demonstrated both rigor and courage. The Lieutenant makes an excellent pair with Grenville’s The Secret River, raising the moral issues of the earlier book to a new level of consideration.

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