The Lieutenant (2008)

The Lieutenant was inspired by a real story that took place in the colony of New South Wales in the last years of the eighteenth century. The story has been hidden for two hundred years between the lines of two shabby blue notebooks stored in a London manuscript library. They record the extraordinary friendship between Lieutenant William Dawes, a soldier with the First Fleet to New South Wales, and a young Aboriginal girl, Patyegarang. 

Dawes – a scholar more than a soldier – set out to learn the language of the people of Sydney Cove, the Gadigal. The notebooks begin with lists of nouns and verbs and grammatical forms, but gradually abandon that approach for a more human one: Dawes recorded entire conversations that took place between him and Patyagarang. Between the lines of the converstations it's clear that they developed a relationship that was mutually respectful, playful, and warmly affectionate. It was almost certainly not a sexual relationship, but one of those friendships that can arise between a clever young person and an adult.   

This friendship was the starting point for my novel. I began with the question: "Who were these remarkable people, who could reach out across the gulfs of difference between them and form such a friendship?" I used the conversations that Dawes recorded without changing them, but invented contexts in which they might have taken place. 

Dawes' friendship brought him on a collision course with the authorities. Finally, he had to choose between his relationship with Patyegarang and her people, and the military machine of which he was part.

I've changed the names of William Dawes, Patyegarang, and all the other characters in the novel to signal clearly that this book is a novel, not history. However, the narrative of the book stays close to the historical events as far as we know them. It's a story about today as much as about yesterday – the issues it explores are still with us. How do we value difference, and how to we learn to communicate across it? How do we learn to listen as well as speak, and how do we respond when life presents us with a moral choice that leaves no room for evasion?

The Lieutenant has been an enormously popular book in Australia (where it featured on many prize lists), the UK, the US and Canada. It's been translated in many languagers, including German, French and Greek.

It is published in Australia by Text Publishing. The audio book is available through Bolinda.