Nearly 20 years ago, while researching her modern Australian classic, The Secret River, Kate Grenville came across the letters of Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of John Macarthur, a British army officer who came to Sydney with his family on the Second Fleet.
The letters gave little sense of Elizabeth as a person, but the author was intrigued by the gap that seemed to exist between their polite tone and the immense challenges that their writer and her young children must have faced in the penal colony.
From this apparent disjuncture emerges Grenville’s vivid and thought-provoking new novel, her first in nearly a decade. A Room Made of Leaves adopts the guise of a long-lost secret memoir apparently written by Elizabeth in her old age.
Describing herself as merely the transcriber and editor of her protagonist’s work, Grenville traces Elizabeth’s story — or her interpretation of it — from her childhood in rural Devon through her hasty marriage to “perhaps one of the most difficult men on the planet”.
Elizabeth emerges as a spirited and sharply intelligent woman who is painfully aware of the constraints of her status, of being “no more than a tenant in my body”, even as she gains awareness of how to effectively wield her limited influence.
Indeed, Grenville credits her with responsibility for a good deal of her husband’s success, including his reputation as the father of Australia’s wool industry. And yet, as Elizabeth reminds the reader, “you have only my word for any of this”. “Do not believe too quickly,” she warns.
Though A Room Made of Leaves is focused on Elizabeth, Grenville also considers other gaps in the historical archive — particularly the silences that exist around Australia’s Aboriginal history.
Thus the book engages with highly relevant questions about power, truth and false narratives, identifying “the replacement of the true history by a false one” as “another, fundamental form of violence”.