Initially, I must admit, I had expected English Passengers to be a little bland and lacking in real depth. The author had clearly done a great deal of historical research, painting a clear enough picture of the period and people involved, but the central conceit seemed a little absurd. A lacklustre story was combined with a literary device, the use of multiple narrative voices, that didn't seem necessary and, given the publishing date of the book, felt quite derivative. It was as if someone had written a perfectly dull yet competent novel about the early European account of Tasmania and then been told by a publishing house to make it "more like Game of Thrones", splashing in some ill-matching theological fantasy elements and lifting the much-lauded style of Martin's works directly.
I am pleased to say I was completely off base and wrong, on both counts. The many-narrators device is used wonderfully well throughout English Passengers, allowing the tale of early Tasmania to span not just multiple viewpoints but almost a century of time, without feeling overly burdensome or complicated. In fact, Kneale does a fantastic job of limiting the reader's 'view', as it were, of the events unfolding so that you are at once informed and yet never overly mired in the huge number of narrative threads being presented. Many characters only have one or two chapters from their perspective and never does a chapter stray from the underlying central plot just to fill in a one-shot or side character's own story. Yet, at the same time, each chapter is well-formed, giving you a good sense both of the current narrator as well as where they fit within the overarching time frame. The shifting of narrative voice is also much more clever than anything Martin ever attempts, giving certain narrators such distinctive styles of relaying their parts of the tale as to make it clear just by glancing at a page who is currently the active voice.
The focus on Manx culture was also fascinating, as was the language used (now unfortunately extinct, though luckily well documented). The whole smugglers' arc is probably the most interesting to me; certainly the one I ended up caring the most about. It isn't the most revealing historically, or the most impactful, but it somehow manages to be the cornerstone of everything else. I think its the absurdity of the situation that these men have gotten themselves into and the blase nature they go about trying to get out of it.
Parts that were based on reality were shocking and fascinating in equal measure. The real theories on aboriginal peoples were abhorrent and eye-opening; the genuine events such as the Black Line and the massacre on the cliff, clearly attempts at genocide, no less so. The fact that an actual Tasmanian was sent to Britain, educated as an aristocrat etc. is also interesting, particularly the way the author highlights his aptitude at mathematics as obvious evidence that the racist notions of works like Dr Potters (though fictional, it was borne of real works from the time that would later go on to inspire concepts like Mein Kampf) were nonsense, but that society at the time had blinded itself to these facts, possibly due to the guilt it would reveal or due to genuine ignorance.
It's not so much about clear-cut morality, but about the nuance of humanity, and the power of ideas to twist reality. Whether you're comparing the eugenicist interpretations of evolution that allows the utter cruelty to take place or the misguided warmongering of Peevay (a native dealt an incredibly cruel hand), the result is that words and ideas can leave you blind to reason, logic, and compassion. Also, that people are capable of incredible evil and even more capable of justifying it.
As for the fantasy elements, these remain an elusive and entirely plausible cause of events but themselves are never borne to fruition. Whilst several of the main characters, the titular "English Passengers" and surrounding Manx crew, in particular, find their story utterly driven by the search for the Garden of Eden, the actual journey and lack of discovery take up only a very short amount of the book itself. In reality, then, whilst the premise sounds ripe for fantasy narrative, the result is a story steeped in history, human behaviour and philosophy, where the realms of what is fiction and fact are blended so completely as to be indistinguishable except by a scholar of the period. The focus on Manx culture was also fascinating, as was the language used (now unfortunately extinct, though luckily well documented). The whole smugglers' arc is probably the most interesting to me; certainly the one I ended up caring the most about. It isn't the most revealing historically, or the most impactful, but it somehow manages to be the cornerstone of everything else. I think its the absurdity of the situation that these men have gotten themselves into and the blase nature they go about trying to get out of it.
In fact, the one time the book could be argued to stray into fantasy is in the nature of its ending, which seems almost too perfect for the real world to allow. Each character gets a fate fitting of their actions, for the most part, with those who strove for fairness and just causes being rewarded and those whose actions were less palatable getting their just desserts. Honestly, though, I was more than happy at how the story finished. It still has a fair share of upending expectations, with the two proper English Gentlemen coming off the worst (as befits their truly awful dispositions) and the murderer, the smuggler, and the serial womaniser (you know, the characters clearly in the moral right that you actually have empathy for and rather like) all having quite happy endings, each in their own way. It's a clever set of circumstances and a very neatly wrapped narrative that gives the book a positive close when, written down in so many words, it should seem almost depressing.
Yet, ultimately, I think that this is where English Passengers truly triumphs. Its tale is one filled with the ugliest aspects of human nature, particularly those upheld by European colonialism (and British imperialism above all else) but it treads those dark waters with a sense of self-reflection which takes the sting out of it. The tragedies and travesties of Empire are by no means ignored or reduced in their severity, but the text is also fair in the appraisal of the people causing them. It is clear that the wilful genocide of the aboriginal tribes of Tasmania was the fault of the British colonists, but it also ensures that you see it through their perspective. Whilst certain instances, such as the mass slaughter of a tribe and consequent cover-up in the very early days of the colony, are wholly repulsive, other courses of action, chiefly the idealism of the Flinders Island plan, are given their due. That they failed was in no small part due to what would now be seen as barbaric behaviour of the self-styled civilised Gentlemen of the time, but through their eyes you can understand that their actions weren't (always) malicious so much as incompetent or ignorant. The story neatly balances the notions of civilisation and intelligence as, rightly, separate from one another and, in doing so, allows the reader to understand the nuance of the situation being presented. It shows the period in shades of grey, rather than attempting to apply a modern lens which would bring it into stark black and white.
Which is to say that English Passengers is a book which will stay with me for some time. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and characters that were portrayed, and found the way it wove historical fact into the narrative extremely clever. Rather than segway off into lengthy descriptions of the nature of society of the time, or long essays on the political, religious or social constructs in which it is set, the author allowed the characters to speak for themselves, in doing so teaching far more than blocks of historically accurate prose would ever have done. I now find myself far more fascinated with the history of Tasmania, for one, than I ever thought I would. Who would have thought such a small island would have borne so much, both in terms of imperial injustice and scientific absurdity. The frankly diabolical, by modern standards, manner in which the condemned men sent out to these farthest-flung penal colonies were maltreated was incredibly shocking. Not just the fact that those put in charge of their care would seek to experiment on them, either through societal manipulation or literal medical procedure, but that so many in such a short time would use the same groups of convicts to play out their twisted fantasies is, frankly, shocking. In turn, the joint dissection of Biblical absolutism and early nationalistic or ethnocratic fascism are equally fascinating to follow through. In their own way, both the Vicar and Doctor believed their goals to be beneficial for humanity, but both seemed to lack even the smallest amounts of empathy or humility. So wrapped up in their own grandiose, self-serving schemes they, as Kneale's writes himself, missed "the evidence before them". The inclusion of the final school report of the real-life George Vandiemen is a touching finale to the text and highlights that, though the societal actions of the time may have been monstrous in retrospect, the people were often far more enlightened then history credits.