All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: A Room Made Of Leaves by Kate Grenville

on February 18, 2021

A Room Made Of Leaves
Kate Grenville
Text Publishing
2020, 319p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

What if Elizabeth Macarthur – wife of the notorious John Macarthur, wool baron in early Sydney-had written a shockingly frank secret memoir? In her introduction Kate Grenville tells, tongue firmly in cheek, of discovering a long-hidden box containing that memoir. What follows is a playful dance of possibilities between the real and the invented.

Grenville’s Elizabeth Macarthur is a passionate woman managing her complicated life-marriage to a ruthless bully, the impulses of her own heart, the search for power in a society that gave her none-with spirit, cunning and sly wit.

Her memoir reveals the dark underbelly of the polite world of Jane Austen. It explodes the stereotype of the women of the past- devoted and docile, accepting of their narrow choices. That was their public face-here’s what one of them really thought.

At the heart of this book is one of the most toxic issues of our times- the seductive appeal of false stories. Beneath the surface of Elizabeth Macarthur’s life and the violent colonial world she navigated are secrets and lies with the dangerous power to shape reality.

A Room Made of Leaves is the internationally acclaimed author Kate Grenville’s first novel in almost a decade. It is historical fiction turned inside out, a stunning sleight of hand that gives the past the piercing immediacy of the present. 

Recently I read Elizabeth & Elizabeth, a book that detailed a friendship between two very well known Elizabeths in New South Wales history – Elizabeth Macquarie, wife of Governor Lachlan Macquarie and Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of soldier and farmer John Macarthur, credited with the establishment of Merino sheep here in Australia. I found that book really interesting and although I’d like to read some non-fiction about either or both one day, I was pointed towards this book, which is a fictional telling based on the pretend discovery of papers at Elizabeth Farm, the farmhouse where the Macarthurs lived after John Macarthur was granted his first 100 acres. Kate Grenville fleshes out the facts with fictional tellings of what Elizabeth might’ve been thinking or feeling during her life time, such as when her mother remarried after the death of her father and left her in the care of her grandfather or when she became the first soldier’s wife to arrive in New South Wales.

Elizabeth arrived in New South Wales in 1789, which is just the following year after the colony was established. By all accounts, Sydney Town was already a rough place (what else could you expect I suppose, in a place to which criminals had been sent). It would surely have been a great culture shock for someone such as her, to come from Devon in England, to Sydney when it was basically still a camp. Her position as wife of a Lieutenant did grant them a house and as John moved up currying favour with the right people their living quarters improved too. As well as Sydney, a colony was being established about 20km to the west at Parramatta, generally considered to be better in terms of soil and fertility. The English early on, spent a lot of time treating Australia as though it were Britain, planting crops that thrived in the motherland and having them not do so well in the warmer climates and less than ideal soil near the coast of the harbour. They also faced sabotage from the local Aboriginal communities, who often burned crops and melted back into the bush without being seen.

In both books, John Macarthur is portrayed as a difficult, blustery man with ambitions of power. This book takes place before some of the events later in his life that lead to him being court-martialled and spending about 12 years back in England on two separate occasions,  defending himself. Once from injuring a superior officer and then the latter charge is about his role in the infamous Rum Rebellion. It is during this time I think, that the farm out at Parramatta (and several others) take off and are grown successfully by her and any managers and they are a regular supplier of wool. Elizabeth is often said to have been calm and even-tempered, a foil for her husband’s more volatile personality and it’s her good nature that kept them in good standing when John was often difficult. In NSW, she regularly held salons to which an invitation was sought after, with music and conversation and high spirits. It’s clear she’s clever and has been quite well educated and in this book, she seeks to educate herself further in terms of things like astronomy. She must’ve been a person of very high tolerance for poor conditions, to survive and thrive in New South Wales in those early days, before the establishment of Elizabeth Farm (Elizabeth Farm house still exists and is heritage listed. My cousin was married there in 1994, so I’ve been but don’t have much memory of it other than how lovely the gardens were).

I really enjoyed this….but I felt it ended a little early. I think I would’ve liked it to continue through the years when John wasn’t there. I understand that a lot of it was establishing the events around their marriage, the voyage to Australia and the difficulties in that and how she found her footing and something to contribute here. But I just would’ve liked to see it continue on through some of those years. Still this was a really interesting read. I’ve found a non-fiction book about Elizabeth Macarthur that looks promising so I’m going to look into that.


Book #24 of 2021

A Room Made Of Leaves is book #9 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

It also counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. It’s book #5

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