FICTION : '' A Room Made Of Leaves '' By Kate Grenville is an important Australian novel, set in the gruesome world of Sydney in the 1700s, attempts to come to terms with the monstrosity of colonialism and the full extent of its horrors.

Grenville's writing flows as she creates a gruesome world of Sydney in the 1700s. She takes great pains to describe the plight of the prisoners who have been exiled for life, for crimes as minor as stealing a sheep or trespassing.

Her writing humanizes the people who have been inflicted a punishment that they see as a second only to death. Their one upside that they are alive - if only at the behest of their commanding officers, used as free labour, working off their sentences till they die.

In this extortionately classist and brutal environment, Grenville minces no words as she describes the inherent racism rampant among the settlers, regardless of rank : ''The general sense among the settlers was that it was only a matter of time before, in a natural way like turning of the seasons, our sable brethren would obligingly disappear.''

Australian author Kate Grenville's latest novel, A Room Made of Leaves, is loosely based on the life of Elizabeth Macarthur, one of the few women who appear in letters, journals and notes recorded by the earliest settlers arriving in New South Wales, and a pioneer of the Australian wool industry.

It chronicles the beginnings of the notorious penal colonies, where boatloads of prisoners were sent to serve at the beck and call of officers of Her Majesty. It also marks the unfortunate and truly tragic dwindling away of the native Aboriginal peoples of Australia and their culture.

Based on real historic events, this is a story of an extraordinary woman who bears witness to a changing world and stands resilient and boldly ahead of her time despite her circumstances.

Grenville uses this narrative to lay bare the cruel system of punishment in England and the devastating effect of movement of prisoners across the globe has on not only those incarcerated, but on the culture of the indigenous people of the soon-to-be-colonised continent.

Grenville's protagonist is Elizabeth, young, curious and smart beyond her years. With a barely-there mother, Elizabeth is taken under the wing of her stern yet loving grandfather, who owns a reasonable spread of land and sheep.

It is the sheep that bind young Elizabeth and her grandfather. He teaches her all there is to know about raising and caring for them, and how to manage a thriving farm like this.

She is also sent regularly to Reverend Kingdon's home to study with Bridie, the reverend's daughter and Elizabeth's lifelong friend. The reverend, like her grandfather, is quick to understand that Elizabeth is an eager learner and advanced in her knack for numbers and words.

Elizabeth, however, doubts herself, as many young girls often do even today : ''even as a child I already knew, without anyone having told me, that it would be best for me not to be too clever.''

Through various twists of fate, Elizabeth soon finds herself a ward of the kindly Kingdoms, who take responsibility for her education and eventual marriage to the surly John Macarthur in an attempt to save her from scandal.

Grenville introduces John as a complicated creature. A victim of his circumstances, he is unbearably proud and overly ambitious. Elizabeth, as his wife, sees him best : ''His status as a gentleman - yes, that was important to him. Of that he was so unsure that he needed to test it continually, to the death if necessary.''

It is because of his insecurity, rage and incessant need to prove himself of a higher station that Elizabeth finds herself pregnant, on a boat filled with prisoners, on her way to New South Wales, where her husband has taken up a position as a lieutenant to serve in a penal colony, in order to pay off his debts.

The World Students Society thanks review author Sahar Shehryar.


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