English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

Set in the mid-19th century, when British imperialism was at its pinnacle and explorers were mapping the last uncharted corners of the globe, English Passengers spins a delicious yarn of intrigue, torment, and reckless lawbreaking on the high seas and within the plains and forests of Tasmania. It is crewed by a fascinatingly diverse cast of characters, including a likable yet eccentric rum-smuggling captain by the name of Illiam Quillian Kewley, a motley band of seafaring Manxmen, an unlikely trio of obnoxious Brits, and a tormented tribe of indigenous Tasmanians.

Captain Kewley and the crew of his smuggling ship Sincerity are expecting a brief, profitable maiden voyage. But after enduring one misfortune after another, due to “prying British Customs men,” they are forced to take on passengers for charter to Tasmania. Reverend Wilson, Dr. Potter, and Timothy Renshaw promptly proceed to make life extremely difficult for each other and for the ship’s crew, resulting in a brilliantly written comedy of errors populated by the most outrageous fools ever to set foot on a ship.

But awaiting the travelers in Tasmania is something utterly unexpected. Interspersed with the humorous antics of the travelers is the heartwrenching narrative of Peevay, the son of a Tasmanian native and a British sailor, who describes with fierce emotion the torments his people have endured from British colonizers. The book’s two main subplots gradually become intertwined, finally merging near the end and drawing the reader into the novel’s uniquely satisfying conclusion.

Though I normally don’t like historical fiction as much as other types of literature, I enjoyed and deeply appreciated this book. It made me laugh out loud with its sidesplittingly hilarious wit, it brought tears to my eyes with its raw descriptions of horrors inflicted by men, all while managing to deliver a time-honored message of tolerance and peace without being tired or clich├ęd. The writing successfully captures the unique personality and regional dialect of each character while still reflecting the author’s eloquent voice and creating a thoughtful, polished piece.

The remarkable thing about English Passengers is how it manages to be so many things at once. This novel is a window into a time long past, a thrillingly adventurous romp, a first-rate comedy and a tale of real-world strife, all rolled into one. I award it five daggers without hesitation.


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