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Review: A Room Made of Leaves, by Kate Grenville
Text, 2020. 317 pp. $33AU

During Sydney’s colonial infancy in the late eighteenth century, there lived John Macarthur, a man credited with introducing the sheep breed that would make Australian wool famous, and himself, a fortune. But what if he wasn’t the innovator he claimed to be, nor a gifted leader and businessman, but merely a bully on the make who got lucky? Indeed, let’s suppose that his luckiest break, though he wouldn’t have called it that, was to marry Elizabeth Veale, who left behind a diary telling what may or may not be the real story?

Portrait of Elizabeth Macarthur, artist unknown, 1794-1796, State Library of New South Wales, presented by Sir William Dixson, 1935 (via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Such is the premise Grenville spins, and what a compelling story she derives from this tight space between truth and fiction. There was no such diary, but turning Elizabeth’s letters to England on their head, Grenville imagines the meaning between the lines as opposite to their literal sense, for, after all, husband John reads them before they cross the ocean — yes, he’s that controlling, and worse.

Through the Macarthurs’ marriage, Grenville retells the story of English colonialism in Sydney, because John is a schemer, and Elizabeth, the often appalled onlooker. The author could have overplayed this and made her protagonist a progressive thinker who rails, in her head, against the maltreatment of the indigenous populations. Rather, as a feeling person, Elizabeth has the capacity to put herself in someone else’s viewpoint, but she has few illusions that she’s any more compassionate than her countrymen, because she takes no action. That criticism may exaggerate, but it’s not far-fetched, for Elizabeth, as a victim of brutality, can surely recognize that in others.

However, relations between husband and wife drive the story. Elizabeth has wit, spirit, and excellent diplomatic survival skills, but she’s had to learn them, on the fly. Her girlhood is a series of abandonments and disappointments, leavened by her beloved grandfather, who, though inflexible in his religious and moral code, encourages his granddaughter to have an inner life and to love nature. Unbeknownst to her, these are two essential weapons in her war of self-defense against her future brute of a husband.

I won’t reveal how she becomes shackled to such a blight on the human race, but I will tell you that the key pleasure in A Room Made of Leaves comes from Elizabeth’s slow but steady education. Catering to his view of her, and of women in general, she pretends to be incapable of serious thought, by which she learns to placate, flatter, outwit, and soothe John, who’s half as smart as he thinks he is. His greatest talent consists of hatching conspiracies to ruin men who haven’t treated him like “a gentleman.” As is often the case with malicious snobs, he knows he has no real claim to that status, and he takes pleasure in his successful cabals, the more vicious, the better.

He’s just as dangerous at home, where he expects complete fealty. Elizabeth takes steps not to change him — heavens, no — but to protect herself as best she can, enough to create a place in her mind where she views herself as worthy, capable, and by no means powerless. That the power largely exists in thought and outlook may not seem like much, at first glance. But Elizabeth’s triumph is that no matter how Macarthur imprisons her in his iron fist, she’s free to think what she likes. And, once in a while, to do more than that.

That’s the inner life her grandfather fostered in her. As for the nature, that’s Australia itself. Interestingly, among the few English residents of Sydney who aren’t convicts, such as the Macarthurs (he’s a military officer), practically no one besides Elizabeth even seems to notice how beautiful the land is. In one of her favorite spots, the room named in the title, she realizes how the scenery can help her spirit:

Each step [down] revealed a new marvel: a view through the bushes of a slice of harbour rough and blue like lapis, a tree with bark of such a smooth pink fleshiness that you could expect it to be warm, an overhang of rock with a fraying underside, soft as cake, that glowed yellow. The wind brought with it the salt of the ocean and the strange spicy astringency given off by the shrubs and flowers. There was an almost frightening breadth and depth and height to the place, alive with openness and the wild energy of breeze and trees and the crying gulls and the brilliant water. Alone, a speck of human in a place big enough to swallow me, I looked about with eyes that seemed open for the first time.

Since A Room Made of Leaves purports to be a diary, the chapters are very short, sometimes only a page. I’ve never liked that style of narrative, which can easily become fragmented, offering undeveloped, shallow bits. But here, Grenville creates a cohesive whole, and though the individual scenes may feel cut short, the ensemble achieves a profound depth. I recommend this novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.