Recommendation: I largely enjoyed this, but that is a function of it being brief rather than it being particularly gripping or profound
Where to read: Hammock in a holiday house
Read with: Try a cheeky Eucalypt Mule cocktail
In brief: Framed as the transcribed ‘secret memoirs’ of Elizabeth McArthur, this is a passingly interesting, if somewhat bland, reinterpretation of early Australian history. It’s fine, it’s an easy read, but it is also facile and not going to set the world on fire.
Full disclosure, I read this in about 3 hours while doped up to the eyeballs on codeine so you know … drug haze might not be the best way to get a full and nuanced appreciation for a text.
Initially I was irked by the obvious positioning as a feminist text – not because I object to feminist reinterpretations of classic texts or historical periods but because it’s just spectacularly unsubtle and offers nothing but period cliché. It improves markedly from about 30 pages in and turns into an interesting take on Australian colonial history, the experience of early settlement and the story of an intelligent woman coming into her own.
Elizabeth is also an interesting creation – very slow on the uptake for someone who claims to be bright, occasionally rather modern in her sensibilities and very unreliable, even by the standards of an unreliable narrator. She’s an impressive person if you accept the premise of the novel (that she rather than her husband was responsible for building the Australian wool industry) but I am afraid she doesn’t quite have the ‘spirit and passion, cunning and sly wit’ advertised in the blurb, probably because Grenville skips over the later part of her life where her talent might actually have been on show.
The most uncomfortable part of the novel, however, is the uneasy relationship between Grenville’s exploration of Elizabeth’s acquisition of power and the fact of Indigenous dispossession. This is the story of a white woman married to one of the most prominent early colonists and a military officer involved in the wars against Pemulwuy and the Eora. Her success, which we are supposed to celebrate, is by necessity built on the bones of Indigenous people. There are attempts to square this circle, or at least give some balance in the account, but it is all a little awkward. Elizabeth is given a couple of “they’re just like us” interactions through her affair with the settlement’s comparatively enlightened astronomer/resident polymath and there is some only slightly self-justifying self-awareness that kicks in in the concluding remarks. This acknowledgment that her sense of home, belonging and ownership over “her” land has come at a price does, however, ring slightly hollow – a modern apology for the character rather than the reflection of a contemporary sentiment.
In fairness, Grenville’s comments around the book position it as a commentary on modern issues as much as historical ones:
At the centre of A Room Made of Leaves is one of the most toxic issues of our own age: the seductive appeal of false stories. This book may be set in the past, but it’s just as much about the present, where secrets and lies have the dangerous power to shape reality.
In this framing, there is the appealing story portrayed in her own letters – a demure wife assisting her husband in a quiet settlement – and the “real” story of a woman in charge of the entire project and war against the Indigenous peoples. The point is, I suppose, that the former version has shaped our understanding of Australian history with devastating results for both women and Indigenous people. I take the point, and certainly that is baked into the structural design of the text, but the novel is ultimately so slight that I don’t think it really makes profound points about anything.