Transports of delight / Booker nomination

PROMISED LANDS by Jane Rogers, Faber pounds 14.99

GOODNESS. Humanity. Sin, the nature of. Evil, ditto. The soul, search for. Life, the meaning of. These are Jane Rogers's themes, and she is not coy about it - are you still with me?

Like a scientist preparing equipment for her experiments, Rogers structures her story to set out a range of human types so that she, and we, can examine them. It is 1788, and the First Fleet lands in Australia: officers, sailors, convicts. Among the officers, Lieutenant William Dawes, astronomer, naive explorer into unknown regions of the world and of the human heart. Also female convicts (guilty, perhaps) and their children (innocent, surely). On the shore, waving their spears and lighting fires in their rough canoes, are the native people; later, there will also be the semi-assimilated aboriginals, who know enough English to communicate their feelings and beliefs. Later still, the freed convicts turned settlers. What kind of world can these assorted specimens create?

At the same time, intercut with the first narrative, it is the present day. Stephen Beech, idealist and teacher, is writing the story of William Dawes and his brave new world. At work, he struggles hopelessly to impose his beliefs on a rowdy and disintegrating school, but the wild pupils are unresponsive to his civilising mission. At home, his marriage to Olla has produced Daniel, a baby so severely handicapped that he cannot move or suck. But Olla, an escapee from violent poverty in middle-Europe, is convinced that Daniel has special strengths that will save the world; she has quickly come to despise Stephen's weak liberalism. What kind of world can these assorted specimens create?

Because Jane Rogers is a writer of great immediacy and power, both these worlds become taut and vivid. The Australian narrative is straightforward, closely plotted, intensely described, with a near-passion for the natural beauty of the place. As the years pass, the new settlement at Sydney Cove grows - roads, a few houses, an observatory, rough huts for the convicts. Crops are planted, and fail. The presence of the women means that food is traded for sex in the most unabashed way; among the half-starved convicts, too, cruelty and kindness, crude brutality and tender protection, are all observed by poor, green William. In this lawless zone, the smallest action, the least transaction, becomes a moral conundrum, but William (like many other characters in the Fleet, he was a real person) is compelling enough for us to read his story as an exceptional sort of sentimental education.

On home territory, the voices of Stephen and Olla are internalised. Unlike the busy sphere of creation and lush nature that is virgin Australia, here is an old and cold country of the heart where a couple no longer speak, where a child is paralysed. Stephen comments on his characters, on Olla, and on his feelings about Daniel; Olla tells no one except the reader of her great secret knowledge about Daniel's powers. They are sad and probably pretty mad, but we care what happens.

What does happen is a bizarre, unhappy reunion of the two worlds, with Stephen facing the emptiness of the Australian desert, beyond the reach of the basest principles of human society. As each of the stories moves to its close - or rather, as their protagonists move out of our range - we realise that Jane Rogers has performed a skittering sleight-of-hand: this writer who is so obsessively interested in morality has answered none of her own questions; shirked nothing, but never resorted to cynicism. If the book has a weakness, it is an artificiality of tone, a certain prescriptiveness, but this is outweighed by its strengths of powerful storytelling, high imagining and unembarrassed depth of feeling.

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