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A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville - Review

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

This was February's book club book, chosen by Rae. I hadn't ever heard of the author so picked this up without much expectation. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the book and would read something else by the same author. 

The book is about Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur, one of the first settlers in Australia. I hadn't heard of either of them, but I understand that John Macarthur is well known in Australia and appeared on a bank note there at one point. John was in the British Army and in 1790 sailed to Sydney to be an officer there. He had to come back to England twice as he was court martialled, and while he was gone, Elizabeth looked after their farm. 

The book is written from her point of view, and purports to be her memoirs, written when she is an old woman and found much later on. Several of her letters really still exist so quotes from them exist in the book. 

Elizabeth was born in Devon and lost her father when she was just four. When she was eleven, her mother remarried and Elizabeth went to live with her grandfather. Later, the local vicar and his family take her in, where she shares a bed with Bridie, who remains a lifelong friend. The two are courted when they are young women by Captain Someone and John Macarthur (I can't remember the captain's name, and anyway he doesn't stick around so it's fine). Elizabeth ends up falling pregnant to John and a wedding is quickly arranged. Her son Edward is only tiny when they travel to Australia (which took six months) and on board ship John makes an enemy of the Captain and Elizabeth delivers a baby, who doesn't survive. When they arrive in Sydney, it's no place for a lady and her child, but she has to make the best of it. John manages to get them a better house than most, and two convicts as servants to help. 

The book mostly focuses on the couple's early years. John is cruel and often dismissive towards Elizabeth. There's no genuine love between them. He is nasty and manipulative and prone to challenging people he's come up against to a duel. Elizabeth learns how to play him and how to mostly get him to leave her alone. 

I liked the book, and I liked the imagining of giving a voice to a woman who may not otherwise have one. I did think that Elizabeth's meetings with the indigenous people of Australia and her feelings towards them may not actually ring true - it's probable she was just as racist and horrible towards them as most white settlers were. It'll be interesting to see what everyone else in my book club thinks about that. But I was entertained by the book and am giving it four out of five. 

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