A Room Made of Leaves
Author: Kate Grenville
Book review: Jenny Dowell
Late in this wonderful novel, Kate Grenville writes ‘This story…may appear to speak with authority, but might it be nothing more than the mischievous invention of a sly old woman?’
Who is the ‘sly old woman’? At first reading, the words are about Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of the famous John Macarthur, reported founder of the Australian wool industry. But the words might also be intended as a description of the author herself.
Typical of the era, little was written about the wives of the men who have become household names in Australia. Kate Grenville has set about to change that, albeit in a work of fiction. She has taken the scant letter writings of Elizabeth Macarthur as her ‘inspiration and guide’ and cleverly woven a story that not only provides a rich picture of a woman of wit, cunning and passion but of the less-than-attractive John Macarthur, a man driven by pride, ego and greed with little business acumen or sensitivity.
The letters from which this book developed are reproduced in the book’s Endpapers. Elizabeth Macarthur’s spiky cross-written letters are difficult to decipher and are held in the Mitchell library but according to Grenville, give little away about Elizabeth’s life or feelings.
In this time of COVID-19, the book was launched via Facebook on 8 July when Kate Grenville spoke about the research she undertook to write the book. Throughout the novel, the prominent historical people of Sydney and Parramatta are more than just a passing parade of characters; they have significant roles within the story.
The book is written as if it’s a secret memoir. But there’s no pretending that this is real.
‘Do not believe too quickly!’ might be the words of Elizabeth Macarthur but they are also Kate Grenville’s words.
In the introduction, the author describes herself as the ‘transcriber and editor’ who purports to have found a box of Elizabeth Macarthur’s diaries ‘The pungent true words I was never able to write’.
Text publishing, in promoting the book writes, ‘Marriage to a ruthless bully, a secret romance, the search for power in a society that gave women none: this Elizabeth Macarthur is sly, smart, cunning and sexy.’
In her Author’s Note at the end of the book, Kate Grenville writes ‘this book isn’t history. At the same time it’s not pure invention.’
I couldn’t put this down. Its voice is true and even if the story is not, I could imagine it as being so.
Thanks to the Richmond Tweed Regional Library for sharing book review by Jenny Dowell Link to Book Reviews and Reserving link