When she is 21, a moment’s dalliance in a bush forces orphan Elizabeth to marry soldier John Macarthur. The story of their marriage in 1788, journey to the colony of Australia on board a convict ship and life in the new settlement called Sydney Town, is told in A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville.
Elizabeth was a real woman but little is known of her, though her husband features in Australia’s history books as the British army officer who became a politician, legislator and pioneer of the Australian wool industry. Grenville is free to imagine what life must have been like as a white settler, and a woman, in a rough, uncultured town where the native people are viewed as animals.
Very quickly Elizabeth finds her new husband is a bully and her new home is a brutal, unforgiving, judgmental place. She spends much time alone with her sickly son and survives by disguising how clever she is, particularly from her husband. More children quickly follow and she bonds more with the convicts who work for her as servants, than she does with the wives of her husband’s friends. An outlier, she decides to improve her learning and seeks lessons on astronomy from an officer in her husband’s corps. What follows changes her understanding of her new country and her place in it.
The pacing seems at times off kilter, a trifle slow in places and rushed at the end, but the writing is as beautiful as I remember from Grenville’s earlier books. Of the book’s two halves, I wanted less of the first half and more of the second about Elizabeth’s role in developing breeds of sheep suited to the wool trade.
Essentially this is a delicately-written story of a young woman who, after making one mistake, is trapped in a loveless marriage far away from her Devon home. She learns how to manage her husband without him realising he is being managed, she tempers his outbursts and steers him out of trouble. Perhaps this fictional account of Elizabeth’s life will mean more to Australians who have grown-up with the historical story of the real John Macarthur.
A good read but not my favourite Grenville book.
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Read more HERE about Kate Grenville’s books and how she wrote her classic, The Secret River.
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A ROOM MADE OF LEAVES by Kate Grenville #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5jI via @SandraDanby