boldtype
Matthew Kneale:
English Passengers
Matthew Kneale
  English Passengers  
Matthew Kneale    
interview

an excerpt



 

In some ways, Matthew Kneale's English Passengers is just an old-fashioned nautical adventure novel, somewhere comfortably between the C.S Forrester Hornblower novels he cites as inspiration and Andrea Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal. The book does, in fact, tell a high seas epic involving rum smugglers, a quest for the Garden of Eden, and the British colonization of Tasmania in the 19th century. However, the double-take that the cover is clearly intended to provoke tips readers off that something more than tall waves, fancy slip-knots, and a bit of swashbuckling is going on between the covers of English Passengers.

What is at first most noteworthy about English Passengers when you learn of its true contents is its sheer ambition. It is a novel told in at least twenty different voices, but you're driven through the book by its sheer narrative momentum, by the excitement of the plot. And they're not just twenty regular old voices, they are: Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley and his band of latter-day pirates from the Isle of Man (where they speak a special dialect); the English passengers themselves, the Reverend Wilson, who believes Eden lies on the island of Tasmania, and Thomas Potter, who is developing a sinister thesis on the races of men; and perhaps most memorably, Peevay (and his fearsome mother), a Tasmanian aboriginal who has watched the British slaughter his people and attempt to obliterate his culture.

Once you've embarked on reading English Passengers, what is most gratifying is its humor, both its moments of sheer, joyous hilarity, and the fact that the book can exist on such an epic scale and not take itself too seriously, not lock us in the various traps that make so many grand historical novels and so many literary "tours de force" stultifying reads. This is because Kneale is, at heart, a truly great storyteller, most interested in keeping you in the thrall of his story--thrilled, nervous, excited, laughing, on the edge of your seat, or rolling on the floor--and never allowing his other talents, charms, and ambitions to get it the way of that.

Here Bold Type talks with Kneale about just what made him think he could pull off such an amazing literary feat, and how he actually did it. There's also an excerpt from the novel.



--Sean McDonald
 
Bold Type
Bold Type
Bold Type
     
 
  Photo of Matthew Kneale copyright © Roderick Field

Send us comments