English Passengers by Matthew Kneale: Inventive, witty, and moving

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

An oblivious Reverend searching for the mystical Garden of Eden. A Manx crew compelled by dubious circumstance to accept despised English passengers. A peaceable civilisation’s way of life threatened by callous, uncomprehending settlers. This is the wonderful world of English Passengers by Matthew Kneale.



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English Passengers: Inventive, witty, and moving

English Passengers is a clever, witty, and moving novel which inspires considerable admiration for the author's dexterity. Please don’t be put off by the number of pages in the book, the narrative just flies along with never a dull moment.


One of the great appeals of English Passengers is its ingenious style. Set in the 1850s, the many narratives are woven through the story by means of numerous diverse voices, each imbued with an impeccably distinct and differing viewpoint.


The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson is a case in point. Dismissive of prevailing scientific evidence and utterly insensible to his effect on others, he embarks on a foolish expedition in search of the Garden of Eden… in Tasmania. (Uncomprehendingly for him, his proposed absence is of obvious relief of his wife). Other members of the expedition are the disturbing Dr Thomas Potter, intent on exploring and recording his sinister theories on mankind, and Timothy Renshaw, timid botanist, offering his own perspective on events.


Illiam Quillian Kewley, the Manx Captain of the ship the Sincerity, has his own nefarious agenda and much of the delightful humour derives from the deception he and his crew maintain on the detested English passengers.


In juxtaposition to the exploits on board Sincerity, and the tension between crew and passengers, is the fate of the aboriginal population of Tasmania, seen through the experiences of Peevay, and the dawning realisation of his origins.


The unfolding of the destructive effects of the white settlers on the Aborigine population, and the portrayal of the widely differing perspectives of the indigenous people and the settlers, is masterful. The immense gulf of understanding between the two cultures is painfully exposed.


Matthew Kneale cleverly draws together the distinct threads of the plot to a masterly and comical culmination on Tasmania, with the final adept resolution a fitting end to his characters' adventures and to a brilliant book.


English Passengers is brimming with comedy and exceptionally well drawn personalities, while starkly and gravely pointing up the horrors and callousness of colonisation. A justifiably award-winning novel.


(I liked it so much I’ve recommended it to my mother-in-law who’s “bubbling” with us over lockdown. I wonder what she’ll make of it...)


Happy reading!





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