Kate Grenville's latest novel, about a young 18th-century English astronomer who is among the first settlers and soldiers to arrive in New South Wales, is historical fiction elevated into the category of "literary fiction", not so much by its research as by its psychological truth. Historical writers know that their readers demand a certain level of information: we want to learn about times different from our own, and it's not so much recognition that we crave in our ancestors as a sense of their difference.
But how to create psychological realism in characters who lived before Darwin and Freud? How are 21st-century readers to understand them? Grenville poses this very question in her own novel. How, her hero Daniel Rooke wonders when he meets the Aboriginal peoples of this new land, are they to understand each others' worlds, when they have been so long separated not only by geography but by history; by inventions that he has and they don't; by language structures he imagines that they lack, and which we have developed with ever-increasing sophistication?
After witnessing the cruelty of the conquering soldiers (even their own men are whipped until flesh clogs the leather straps), Daniel decides that "you did not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who spoke it with you". In his own case, this relationship is his gentle love for a young girl, Tagaran, who teaches him her language just as he teaches her his. And through Daniel's handling of this relationship, we connect with him ourselves, and make that leap across the centuries, to understand a little better what it may have been like to arrive with a conquering force and quell an innocent people.
The Lieutenant is a lovely example of historical fiction at its best: complex, demanding, and always revealing.