In A Room Made of Leaves, multi-award winning Australian author, Kate Grenville, creates an unreliable memoir. From the beginning, we suspect that all may not be what it seems. Even the epitath reads, ‘Do not believe too quickly!’ Elizabeth Macarthur. Several times, the protagonist, who is also the narrator, warns the reader not to trust what she says.
Several commentators write about Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves as somewhere between ‘hoax and history’. In either case, it is an enthralling and entertaining story, written by one of Australia’s best writers.
Although usually a fan of Kate Grenville’s writing, I started this book reluctantly. I missed it when it was first published, or overlooked it, perhaps because the cover didn’t appeal. Then someone chose it for our book club. By ten pages in, however, I was hooked.
An unreliable memoir creates dilemmas for a reader. With writing that claims to be factual, deliberate distortion creates ethical and possibly legal problems. As well as that the work has no worth as documentation. However, according to Nils Gunder Hansen,
When a first-person narrator in a literary text is considered unreliable, the
reader is confronted with both an aesthetic refinement and a thought-provoking
challenge, An interplay [exists] between the norms and values of the implied author and
those of the narrator, a gap or an ambiguity to be analyzed.
Can we believe anything we read in A Room Made of Leaves? Or nothing? And does it matter when we accept that we are reading fiction?
A Room Made of Leaves based on history
Elizabeth Veale, the daughter of Devonshire farmers, married soldier John Macarthur in England in 1788. The couple travelled to Australia with the New South Wales Corps and arrived in Botany Bay two years after the first fleet. While still a British Army officer, Macarthur managed to obtain a grant on farmland at Parramatta.
At school in the 1950s we learned that ‘Australia rode on the sheep’s back’. Many Australians revered Macarthur as the founder of the Australian merino wool industry. However, history later also demonstrated him as troublesome, aggressive and a corrupt racketeer.
The wool industry he claimed to pioneer owed its origin and success to his wife, Elizabeth. She managed Macarthur’s land and farm for many years with the assistance of a man who had been sent as a convict to the colony for stealing a sheep. Meanwhile, Macarthur returned to England where he faced Court Martial for assaulting a senior officer and other offences.
Letters Elizabeth Macarthur wrote to her family and friends in England survived. As Kirsten Tranter says in an article in the Guardian, the letters
… present carefully constructed, lady-like fictions designed to both conceal and subtly reveal the truth.
Kate Grenville used these letters as well as fragments of an unpublished memoir as her initial inspiration for A Room Made of Leaves. In them, we can read the irony which reveals to Elizabeth Macarthur’s audience in England the reality of her life in the colony. At the same time, the irony conceals her lived truth from her coercively controlling husband.
Wilful girl, unruly woman
Elizabeth’s mother describes her daughter as a ‘wilful girl’. In Kate Grenville’s writing, we see the ‘wilful girl’ transformed. She developes into an ‘unruly woman’, who deals with the oppressive marriage in which she finds herself.
The themes of the patriarchy and the role of ‘unruly women’ recur in Grenville’s novels. They are major themes in her first novel, Lillian’s Story.
One of the few educated women in the Colony of New South Wales, Elizabeth somehow flourishes in spite of her belief that her husband is ‘dangerously unbalanced’. While she seems to acquiesce to her husband’s many demands, she also manages to create a fulfilled life of her own.
The settlement of Sydney and the surrounding land is a story of harsh treatment of the Aboriginal people. Kate Grenville does not shy away from the reality of brutal colonisation and resistance by the First Australians. She shows Elizabeth Macarthur flourishing against her environment, in spite of her distaste for it.
A fascinating book for a general audience. Perhaps especially suitable for those interested in Australian history, clever writing, fast-paced stories, ingenious plots or unravelling literary puzzles. A good read for a bookclub, with many discussion points and stimulating ideas. Teachers and students would also gain value from reading this novel by a noted Australian author.
Two more reviews on my site: