Thanks to the publishers, and NetGalley, for providing me with a free eARC* of this book in exchange for my honest review.
*eARC: electronic Advance Review Copy
TWs: Marital rape.
Title: A Room Made of Leaves
Author: Kate Grenville
Release Date: 6th August 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
A Room Made of Leaves is presented in the form of found diary entries, the writings of a woman named Elizabeth Macarthur, confessing the truth of her life story. This tale is, in fact fictional, though Grenville presents it as a found document. Elizabeth claims that everything published about her and her husband while he was alive were all obscuring the truth of their relationship and the nature of her husband. I thought going into this book that it would be somewhat epistolary, written in a diary-like form, but Elizabeth never dared to write anything down while her husband was alive, so the book is written retrospectively.
I was already somewhat familiar with the Australian penal colonies from having read about them previously, but I had never read anything from the perspective of one of the colonisers as opposed to one of the convicts. Elizabeth is originally from Devon, but after a tryst with a solider — Mr Macarthur — she falls pregnant and they are forced into marriage. She later discovers he is deep in debt, and in an effort to earn enough to repay this debt, he takes a job in the New South Wales penal colony. The majority of the novel chronicles their lives after they depart from Devon, living in a makeshift settlement, always aspiring to more.
As this novel is written from a retrospective perspective, Grenville shows Elizabeth’s distaste for Mr Macarthur from the earliest scenes he is present in. While Elizabeth writes about her desire for him, I never felt particularly convinced by it, as her retelling is coloured by the events that happen later in the novel. Their marriage is loveless, but Elizabeth does her best to twist their relationship to her advantage, learning to never be too enthusiastic about an idea of his. She learns that by expressing doubts about his ideas, he becomes more and more determined to carry them out, and so she manipulates this to work to her advantage.
The character of Elizabeth was really interesting as I could not imagine being able to carry on being a mother and playing the role of wife after having been isolated from the only friends I knew, taken to the other side of the world to live in a barely-built colony with no real society or social interaction. Somehow, Elizabeth manages to keep on going, building relationships she can use to her advantage, using her status as Mr Macarthur’s wife to secure a place in the male-dominated society. She establishes herself as a host, and plays the role of the good wife in front of all the other soldiers in the colony, which helps to cement Mr Macarthur’s status in the colony, allowing them to claw their way up.
The novel did drag in the middle somewhat, but as it’s quite a short novel I persevered through, and the pacing picks up towards the end, perhaps to the point of rushing things. The earlier part of the novel, though, flows really well, capturing my interest enough to keep me engaged even when the pacing dropped. I also felt as though the novel was lacking something as the end approached. Elizabeth’s change of heart, and sudden affection for Australia and desire to stay seemed to come out of nowhere. For most of the novel, she is dreaming of home, Devon, and maintaining her hope that Mr Macarthur would make enough money that they could return to England, pay off his debts and make a pleasant life for themselves back in Devon. The switch to suddenly seeing Australia as home didn’t seem to make much sense to me, or have enough of a build up to be believable.
It would have been nice to have been able to see more from the perspective of the Aboriginal people, as Elizabeth does foray somewhat into their society through her friendship (and eventual relationship) with Mr. Dawes, who has managed to befriend several of the Aboriginal people and has learnt their language and their customs. Aside from a couple of scenes between Elizabeth and these people, the Aboriginal people and the effects of colonisation on them are largely missing from the book. The only other mentions of the Aboriginals is when they are attacking the settlements, destroying farmland, and the eventual ‘fight’ they are tricked into by the colonisers.
The final thing I want to mention in relation to this book is the writing style Grenville uses. Elizabeth’s voice is strong and consistent throughout the novel, and as such the writing does carry you along, but I felt like something was lacking. I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly this would be — something to make Elizabeth even more unique perhaps? I just found the writing style a little simple, which I didn’t really feel fitted Elizabeth as such a strong, manipulative, savvy woman.