A Room Made of Leaves
Text Publishing, 2020
“A playful dance of possibilities between the real and the invented” is how Text Publishing promotes Kate Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves. “What if Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of the notorious John Macarthur … had written a shockingly frank secret memoir?”
Of course, she didn’t (so far as we know), so Grenville has used her imagination to fill in the details of how an historical figure may have thought and acted. (A Room Made of Leaves, her sixteenth book, is the fourth in a series of colonial novels, beginning with A Secret River in 2005.)
Most of the key historical facts are true, though Grenville takes a few liberties. The fictional Mrs Macarthur, like the real one, sails with husband John from England, pregnant and with a toddler in tow. We hear of John Macarthur’s notorious public life through Elizabeth, who is vastly relieved when circumstances force him to spend years in England while she remains in Parramatta.
The rest is Grenville’s imagination, from Elizabeth’s dislike of her narcissistic bully of a husband to her afternoons spent in the embrace of Mr Dawes, the astronomer, in the leafy room of the title.
While A Room Made of Leaves quotes letters written by the real Elizabeth Macarthur, the fictional Elizabeth explains that her letters were always written knowing her husband would read them, as would many others besides the intended recipient. This gives Grenville wide license to present a character very different from the Elizabeth whose actual letters survive.
Her descriptions of her new home’s natural beauty are among some of the book’s best prose: “Each step 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, and overhang of rock with a fraying underside, soft as cake, that glowed yellow … There was an almost frightening breadth and depth and height to the place.”
Books like A Room Made of Leaves present us with a character who may or may not have said, done, or thought the things we read. This gives the author almost carte blanche, for who can dispute what someone might have thought?
Yet it seems farfetched to have the fictional Elizabeth, 40 years on, chiding herself for being a thief for “every one of those forty years” because “I am not prepared to give them (the Indigenous people) back what has always been theirs”. In fact, the real Elizabeth Macarthur referred to the Aborigines as “complete savages … lawless and troublesome” and lamented that “Our settlements are constantly subjected to their depredations.” Why Grenville felt the need to imbue her with such a noble outlook is puzzling and seems more tokenistic than realistic.
Still, this is a minor criticism of a book that is well researched and well written, and which, unusually, tells Australian colonial history from a female perspective.