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A Room Made of Leaves

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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.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published July 2, 2020

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About the author

Kate Grenville

39 books664 followers
Kate Grenville is one of Australia's best-known authors. She's published eight books of fiction and four books about the writing process. Her best-known works are the international best-seller The Secret River, The Idea of Perfection, The Lieutenant and Lilian's Story (details about all Kate Grenville's books are elsewhere on this site). Her novels have won many awards both in Australia and the UK, several have been made into major feature films, and all have been translated into European and Asian languages.

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5 stars
2,169 (25%)
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3,561 (42%)
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91 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 840 reviews
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,709 reviews25k followers
May 23, 2021
Kate Grenville writes a blend of fact and fiction, inspired by the letters written to friends and family in England by Elizabeth Macarthur, a novel in which Grenville makes the claim of discovering a secret memoir that is later revealed to be an untruth. The letters are given an alternative spin to what is actually said in them, providing a more palatable picture of Elizabeth, one that is more appealing to our modern sensibilities, and questioning the official historical accounts of a turbulent period of early settler history that brushed over the cruel realities, brutalities, and crimes committed against the indigenous people, and the grim exploitation of the convict population. Elizabeth moves from England to Australia with her husband John, seeing Sydney as it was, John is to become a wool baron, sheep farming in New South Wales.

Elizabeth is portrayed as a woman of passion, bright, resilient, courageous, ambitious, independent, witty, and able, married to a nasty piece of work, the manipulative, domineering bully that is John, so she has to operate below the radar to manage him in times when women had little power or agency in a patriarchal world. A mother to many children, she is self aware, not blind to the unacknowledged horrors of what happening to the indigenous population, drawing connections between the colonisation and her life. This apparent 'biography' evokes and gives life Elizabeth, the challenges she faces, the relationships, love, and her considerable input in the business in the Australia of this historical period, the harsh living conditions, with details and descriptions of the locations, the social norms and attitudes of the time, challenging the official glossed over versions of history.

This is a beautifully written and atmospheric piece of historical fiction, ambiguous, leaving it to the reader to determine what the life of the real Elizabeth Macarthur might have been like. I really enjoyed the well researched storytelling and the literary device used by the author, but I felt that many other readers might be less accepting of it, the questionable historical veracity over the life of a real life figure from this period, echoing the questions that should be aimed at the veracity of accepted Australian history. A wonderfully expressed and engaging read that I know I will be thinking about and reflecting on further. Many thanks to the publisher for an ARC.
Profile Image for Fiona.
843 reviews448 followers
April 27, 2020
The name, John McArthur, of Camden Park Estate in New South Wales, means nothing to me but the introduction to this book suggests that he’s famous, or perhaps infamous, in Australia. Kate Grenville has written a fictional account of his and his wife’s lives with Elizabeth McArthur, his wife, as the story teller. As always, there are many short passages of beautiful writing. Grenville’s descriptions of nature and landscape are often profoundly beautiful. As always, I enjoyed her style of writing. In this book, the story is in 5 parts split into very short sections, like mini chapters and is a quick and easy read.

Having said all this, I feel so disappointed. Very little of this story is new ground for Grenville. The early years in Sydney, the lives of settlers, those there by choice and those not, and their relationships with the First Nation peoples, the living conditions, and the work of the astronomer and botanist, William Dawes, have already been covered in The Secret River and particularly in The Lieutenant. So much of the middle part of the book is about William Dawes, I felt I was re-reading The Lieutenant. For that reason, I can only just give this 3 stars. It was enjoyable but it lacks originality. I can’t help but wonder why Grenville decided to revisit a period of history she has already written so fully about. Perhaps if I hadn’t read The Secret River trilogy, I would have enjoyed it more.

With thanks to NetGalley and Canongate for a review copy.
Profile Image for Emma.
385 reviews6 followers
July 18, 2020
Duplicitous and conniving, this is a book that sets out to dispel 'the seductive appeal of false stories'
- by replacing it with an equally false one, with a kind of 'woke colonialism' of its own.

It begins with the patently false 'Editor's Note' in which Grenville states that she has 'done nothing more than transcribe the papers in the box' (apart from some minor rearrangement and editing) and has 'let Elizabeth Macarthur tell her own story' - a deception that is dispelled only after the reader has completed the story and Grenville admits 'there was not box of secrets...I wrote it.'

Grenville reanimates the Macarthurs, only to strip them of their wild and conflicted identities, recasting John as a man wholly without redemptive qualities (a rapist, a thief, a murderer) and conjuring up Elizabeth's spirit to be indistinguishable to that of a modern feminist (complete with a question mark over her sexuality, closet atheism, a tryst on the beach, frank openness towards the First Nations people and a simmering resentment towards the oppressive patriarchy). Her only source documents in the book (the letters that the real Elizabeth wrote home to her family and friends) are recast almost as parody, with Grenville's Elizabeth explaining away how when she said she was 'abundantly content' she, of course, meant the opposite.

My first thought upon realising the deception at the conclusion of the book was this: 'whitewash'. And I now understand that Grenville has been criticised of this in the past (to her fury). But I cannot conceive of it any other way. Grenville's Elizabeth is sympathetic to the First Nations people, going so far as to say that she doubts her husband's account of the 'affray' in which many lost their lives because of her knowledge that 'Pemulwuy's people are neither weak nor foolish' and that she is 'a newcomer here, ignorant of the inner grain of the place' and that 'the lifetime of one woman cannot be put beside the uncountable generations of the people who were here before me.' Yet Elizabeth Macarthur's actual words in one of her letters are considerably different: "Attempts have been made to civilise the natives of this country, but they are complete savages, and are as lawless and troublesome as when the Colony was first established. Our settlements are constantly subjected to their depredations.” I do not seek to judge the true Elizabeth - she was a creature of culture and understanding informed by her generation (as we all are), but I would much prefer to meet the real Elizabeth between the pages, rather than a patently photo-shopped version.

What this false tale has spurred me towards is to investigate the real history of the Macarthurs. My next step is to bury myself in Michelle Scott Tucker's book 'Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World' (which is inexplicably published by the same publishing house not two years earlier).

Grenville is clearly a talented writer, but these issues and the deception that is interwoven into the text immediately converted my perspective from believing this to be a 4-5 star review to a 1-2 star one. I do not like being misled.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for 8stitches 9lives.
2,854 reviews1,643 followers
August 8, 2020
A Room Made of Leaves is the explosive biographical novel by Booker-shortlisted Australian author Kate Grenville and boy was it worth the almost decade long wait. Inspired by a slew of letters written by Elizabeth Macarthur and sent from Australia to family and friends in England, Grenville believes present carefully constructed, lady-like fictions designed to both conceal and subtly reveal the truth, she both gives a voice to the voiceless and examines the impact of brutal colonisation on Elizabeth as a woman and the wider indigenous populations.

What if Elizabeth Macarthur—wife of the notorious John Macarthur, British-officer-turned-wool-baron in the earliest days of colonial Sydney—had written a shockingly frank secret memoir? And what if novelist Kate Grenville had miraculously found and published it? That’s the starting point for A Room Made of Leaves, a playful dance of possibilities between the real and the invented. Marriage to a ruthless bully, the impulses of her heart, the search for power in a society that gave women none: this Elizabeth Macarthur manages her complicated life with spirit and passion, cunning and sly wit. Her memoir lets us hear—at last!—what one of those seemingly demure women from history might really have thought. At the centre of A Room Made of Leaves is one of the most toxic issues of our own age: the seductive appeal of false stories. This book may be set in the past, but it’s just as much about the present, where secrets and lies have the dangerous power to shape reality. This is historical fiction turned inside out, a stunning sleight of hand by one of the most original writers of our generation.

This is a fantastic, moving and rumination-inducing read from the moment you pick it up until the moment you put it down and tells both a personal story, of Elizabeth and her rather sad life, and the brutal colonisation happening in Australia at the time with Grenville adeptly illustrating how each intertwine. It was a time when self-censorship was ubiquitous, and although fictional this is likely a lot closer to what Elizabeth wanted to say but was afraid of the possible consequences when women were told to ’put up and shut up’ and to put on a polite public face no matter how they were feeling. Beautifully written with delicate attention to detail and weaving in her own family history, the author has treated us to another profound novel I feel is destined to be nominated for awards. This novel changes the way you think about the earliest days of the colonial experience in Australia: about the role of women, the fickleness of the official narrative, the power of conversation, and the possibility of love. It’s a book which dramatises the past in order to speak directly to our times, to our aspirations, and the debates that matter most to us. It is a book you will ponder long after you turn the final page. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Many thanks to Canongate for an ARC.
Profile Image for Katie Lumsden.
Author 2 books2,952 followers
May 1, 2021
Maybe 3.5. I really enjoyed this novel. It was engaging and intriguing with a great central character. I didn't always find the pacing quite right but I did enjoy it overall.
Profile Image for Jaclyn.
Author 57 books607 followers
July 9, 2020
Kate Grenville has a thing and it would seem she's just going to keep doing that thing.
July 19, 2020
A Room Made Of Leaves tells the story of how young Elizabeth Veale came to marry the pompous, volatile John Macarthur and move with him to the penal colony of Sydney Town. While Grenville doesn’t explicitly explore the violence wrought upon the First Nations people the Macarthurs encountered (as she has done in previous books), she does portray those early interactions in a way that feels true to the story and its characters. All told, this book is like True History Of The Kelly Gang meets Jane Austen – absorbing and intriguing.

My extended review of A Room Made Of Leaves is available at Keeping Up With The Penguins.
Profile Image for Text Publishing.
609 reviews228 followers
November 5, 2021
The following reviews are shared by Text Publishing – publisher of A Room Made of Leaves

'This story, told through Grenville’s sharp lens, is one that will stay with the reader for a long time.’

'An ingenious tapestry of history and invention, A Room Made of Leaves is a novel of womanhood, motherhood, secrets, lies, obsession, transformation and the loss of innocence. It’s a true pleasure to read Grenville’s writing, and this one’s been well worth the wait!’

‘Her fiction is always a challenge, a goad to our complacencies, social decorums and repressions…Richly imagined…[Provides] the shock we perhaps need to remind us of what might still be possible.’

‘Grenville’s prose is elegant and meticulously crafted…Despite the trappings of history in A Room Made of Leaves and Grenville’s impressive use of the archive to conjure the novel, her achievement here is not a historical one. A Room Made of Leaves questions, rhetorically, how to live ethically with a history that is unfair.
Saturday Paper

‘Another book in her fantastic collection of work about early Australian colonial times and it’s at least as good, if not even better, than all the others… Absolutely brilliant.’
Radio NZ Nine to Noon

‘Stunning…a clever mix of fact and fiction.’
Weekly Times

‘Grenville invites the reader to reflect on the complex relationship between truth and falsehood, history and fiction…[A] stunning literary achievement.’
Kirsten Tranter, The Guardian

‘Kate Grenville’s ‘A Room Made of Leaves’ - an almost flawless novel about our early colonial history told through the fictional eyes of Elizabeth MacArthur - it’s deep in research and beautifully realised.’
Heather Rose, author of The Museum of Modern Love

'Kate Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves (Text) gives us an unforgettable flesh-and-blood re-imagining of 18th-century mother of the Australian wool industry, Elizabeth Macarthur.’
Clare Wright, Age

‘Grenville is challenging the reader, through the eyes of Elizabeth, to face the harsh reality that success and flourishing can so often be at the expense of others.’
Catholic Outlook

‘Excellent…So beautifully observed and written…An accomplished novel with all the experience that a writer like Kate Grenville brings to her work...Really a superb piece of work.’
Leigh Sales

‘Vividly, even wickedly, re-imagines the life of Elizabeth Macarthur.’

'In her rich vision of an alternate life for Elizabeth… Grenville offers a potentially myth-busting version of a turbulent time.’

'Historical comeuppance is on order in Kate Grenville's A Room Made of Leaves…White-hot…[An] impressively angry book.'
Wall Street Journal

'At first I was intrigued, then I was enthralled, and by the end I felt as though Elizabeth had been a flesh-and-blood friend. Her story makes for a powerful interrogation of femininity, patriarchy, and colliding cultures. Grenville dedicates the book “to all those whose stories have been silenced”, and it speaks to those gaps in the archive–a stunning work of historical fiction for the #MeToo era.’
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 48 books144 followers
June 29, 2020
Using the device of a supposed cache of recently discovered letters, Kate Grenville imagines the private life of Elizabeth Macarthur, whose husband, John, was a pioneer of the Australian wool industry and who is widely regarded as one of the most significant figures in his country's history. However, in Kate Grenville's story his success is largely due to the resourcefulness of his wife and her skill in managing his difficult personality.

At the novel's heart is the imposing backdrop of the Australian countryside, beautiful but uncompromising. Against this backdrop she reworks many of the themes of her earlier books including the experience of knowing oneself to be regarded by the world as unattractive, the unexpected arrival of love when all hope of it has been abandoned, and the unrecognised and buried atrocities of early Australian history.

There is a such an authenticity about Kate Grenville's writing. It comes from the patient accumulation of small detail that mimics lived experience. Bit by bit she unpicks the story Australia has told itself, replacing it with one that contains room for the voices that have been omitted.
August 8, 2020
I really enjoyed Kate Grenville's 'The Secret River' and 'The Lieutenant' but I cannot say the same of 'A Room Made of Leaves'. I think Elizabeth Macarthur has been dealt a great injustice and appears to have not much substance to her. I was hoping this story would be more about her character and establishing and running Elizabeth Farm in her husband's absences but this seemed to be only a footnote at the end of the novel. I found the insinuation that Watkin Tench was a shifty character and she had a liaison with the astronomer Dawes preposterous. Her spying on her servants also annoyed me - really???? I believe she was, in her own right, a strong, attractive, independent woman who held her own in the new Colony and was loyal to her husband despite his obvious misgivings. Yes this is a novel with a quirky start but I suppose I wanted Elizabeth to shine and for me this did not happen.
Profile Image for LindaMoctez.
113 reviews2 followers
August 23, 2020
Oh Kate! Why did you do this? You’ve made the same mistake as HIStory has made all along, glorifying its heroes and ignoring their flaws and crimes. We must not do this with HERstory Kate! You have projected your own 21st century post-colonialist and feminist enlightenment onto Elizabeth MacArthur, with the skimpiest evidence to back it up! Your audience deserves better than this. We are lovers of HISTORICAL fiction... it simply isn’t possible that she could have been so politically correct! A few flaws more consistent with the evidence least could have convinced us a little more. The descriptions of Sydney are glorious, but unfortunately, it was not enough to take us back to colonial Australia where I am sure the horrendous suffering of women, including Elizabeth, would have created characters far more vengeful, competitive and and manipulative.
Profile Image for Lyn Elliott.
699 reviews187 followers
November 25, 2021
Kate Grenville has now written several books set in the early years of the British colonisation of New South Wales and while this one treads slightly different territory to its predecessors, there is necessarily some cross over of events and personnel.

This, the most recent, is presented as the secret memoir of of Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of one of early Sydney's most powerful men, John MacArthur: a British army officer, entrepreneur, politician, architect, pastoralist and merchant; hot-tempered, ruthlessly ambitious, unscrupulous and jealous. A nasty piece of work, in short.

Traditionally he has been regarded as the founder of Australia's wool industry and Elizabeth has been acknowledged as helping him in years when he was back in England and she still in Australia with their children.

Elizabeth's voice fills A Room Made of Leaves, as she writes her secret memoir of the earlier years of their relationship, then marriage, emigration and life in the new colony. John, perhaps unsurprisingly, does not come out of it well. Elizabeth, also unsurprisingly, seems to have been far more involved in successful sheep breeding than has been acknowledged in the traditional histories.

It's interesting to read the official entries for the Macarthurs in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, written by different people and very different in tone, and compare them with the Macarthurs that Grenville has presented here.

It's a lively tale, told without flourish (completely unlike Devotion by Hannah Kent which I've just finished). It's a pity it fades away at the end.

It was set as a book club read, but our meeting has been postponed until December and I can't yet include views of my real life reading friends. .

Australian Dictionary of Biography entries:
Profile Image for Jennifer (JC-S).
2,964 reviews204 followers
May 9, 2023
‘Dearest, he said, and I was immediately wary. ‘

In this novel, Ms Grenville reimagines aspects of the life of Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of John Macarthur. In her reimagination, Ms Grenville discovers a secret memoir written by Elizabeth Macarthur, one which brings her out of the shadows.

First, a few facts. Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850) was born on 14 August 1766 in Devon, England, daughter of Richard Veale, farmer, and his wife Grace. She married John Macarthur in October 1788. In June 1789 he joined the New South Wales Corps and Elizabeth and their son Edward (born in March 1789) accompanied him when he sailed to take up his position in the colony. Mrs Macarthur’s letters to her family written during the journey to New South Wales are one of the outstanding records of early voyages on convict transports. John Macarthur (c1767-1834), soldier, entrepreneur and pastoralist was a prominent figure in colonial Australia.

Around these facts (and others) Ms Grenville portrays Elizabeth Macarthur as a passionate woman who learns how to manage marriage to an opinionated and ruthless bully.

‘As I copied out his words I noticed that the word we never appeared. In Mr Macarthur’s lonely cosmology, there was no such pronoun. Only me, myself, I.’

While I read this novel and enjoyed the imagined Elizabeth Macarthur’s view of and opinions about the role of women and colonial settlement, aspects made me uneasy. How many people will read this novel and believe it is fact instead of fiction, despite Ms Grenville’s disclaimer? Despite my unease, I enjoyed the opportunity to view colonial settlement through a different perspective.

‘Down beside the river I had a spot of my own, where now and then I could slip out of the skin of Mrs John Macarthur. It was screened by bushes that framed a view up and down the stream: another airy room made of leaves.’

I suspect that the real Mrs John Macarthur will always remain elusive. We know of her from her letters, written within the strictures of the society of the time. But the person behind the letters? Ms Grenville presents us with some interesting possibilities.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Profile Image for Michael Livingston.
795 reviews252 followers
November 15, 2020
This was all a bit Grenville-by-numbers - she knows how to tell a story and MacArthur emerges as a compelling character, but I was still a bit underwhelmed.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
418 reviews47 followers
February 28, 2022
Kate Grenville has once again created a read that brings to light all the sensory elements of the Australian bush for which Elizabeth Macarthur discovers through astronomer William Dawes. Dawes had been assigned to join the first fleet to make astronomical observations on the journey as well as to set up an observatory. Elizabeth was attracted to the quiet manner of Dawes which was in such contrast to the petulant, argumentative and aggressive nature of her husband, Lt.John Macarthur.

The read describes Elizabeth as an educated woman, her parents were both educated farmers of some wealth. What a contrast for the English born young woman to land in the wilderness of Australia, that at this stage was totally reliant on all manner of produce and supplies from England. Rationing and starvation was always at the door. Endeavouring to grow crops from a cultivated and cold land was never really going to work well in the hot, dry and uncultivated area of the first settlement.

Elizabeth describes the restrictions she had on her freedom which meant that in her daily walks nothing much changed for her viewing. The wild animal life and the snakes would have been terrifying and perceived vermin (bandicoots etc would have looked like large rats) and the poisonous spiders, all very dangerous along with the unruly massive trees with narrow leaves that faced downward and constantly littered, so different to England, the convicts and the silent movement of Aboriginals added to the dangers. However one day she makes her companions swear to secrecy as she ventures further and then further and discovers the hut of William Dawes. Here she eventually meets up with the Aboriginals of the area. Dawes has already started to document some of their language for which Elizabeth also tries to learn.

Dawes was the first European to defend Aboriginal rights, however, his stance and subsequent events meant that an extended tenure to remain in Australia was refused and he returned to England.

This is a great loss for Elizabeth who describes her quiet and valued attachment to him.

Life with John Macarthur would have been difficult but fortunately for Elizabeth her controlled manner managed to assist in restraining his threats of dueling with any adversary, however sometimes it was impossible. Hot tempered he would grab the pistols and at a chosen time the dueling would ensure. He was a man with a very ordinary heritage, his father was a Scottish draper and it seems he was a man wanting to be part of the gentry but without the means to become one. After the American Independence war his income was halved and after an unsuccessful posting in Gibraltar he secured a position as lieutenant in the NSW corps raising his profile but at what cost? Dragging his young wife and son on the perilous sea voyage to the ends of the earth.

The book describes his manipulating manner to grab more and more land. Success with cross breeding their sheep gave John perceived airs of grandeur and belief that he should return to England, (to ponce around) much to the relief of Elizabeth who started to count the days when she would be free of him.

Alone to navigate her own destiny Elizabeth's resilience and probably her farming upbringing won her the respect of those around her with her many improvements and success in farming.

Elizabeth reflects at the end with much remorse the cost of all of her success to the detriment of the original peoples of the land.
Profile Image for Kim.
875 reviews88 followers
January 26, 2021
This novel was delightful in so many ways and while it is historical fiction it covered some issues that are still important to us today.
Do not believe too quickly! as Elizabeth Macarthur says, is an important thing to take from this fabulous work of fiction.
There have always been schemers and it seems they make schemers of their significant others too, despite themselves. Who is scheming who?
John Macarthur is someone who believes in outwit and outwait to gain advantage for himself and by virtue of being tied to him in marriage in early colonial Sydney, Elizabeth is forced into the same game, usually against her husband, to carve a place for herself.
Contemporary accounts of Elizabeth Macarthur, as the first wife of an Officer to arrive in the Penal Colony have said that she was a snob who set herself above others, usually kept to herself and would not consider socialising nor confiding in anyone below her station. But this is an entirely different, convincing and empathetic take on what she may have felt and what may have motivated her.
The notion of not really getting the full take on current events, seemed as probable in events in that era. Particularly as the conflicts with Indigenous people, in the early colony, hover unresolved.
Also the shadow of land theft still is cast long and is continuing to be long overdue for a resolution.
Her relationship with Watkin Tench that's been explored in this novel will encourage me to pick up Tench's 1788, that I've been meaning to read for sometime.
It also reminded me of Esther - The extraordinary true story of the First Fleet girl who became First Lady of the colony, the biography by Jessica North and reminded me of my own convict ancestors that included some very strong women.
I feel like a reread of The Secret River maybe in order and maybe the Lieutenant, although I found Dawes was a bit of an ethereal figure that only existed in Elizabeth Macarthur's imagination in this novel.
Absolutely excellently realised fiction. Highly recommended if you enjoy intelligent Historical Fiction.
314 reviews
April 29, 2020
A woman from Devon makes one mistake and ends up marrying a man she does not like, and having to move to Australia with him. This book tells her story as she settles in New South Wales, learns to manage her husband and makes a life for herself and her children in the colony.

I enjoyed the descriptions of Sydney, the homestead and the politics of the early settlers. This period of history is a favourite with Kate Grenville. Fans may feel that they are in familiar territory as some of the characters and scenarios have previously made appearances in 'The Secret River' however sometimes we all need a friendly comfort blanket, and this is an enjoyable, well written and laid out read. A female perspective adds a different view on the men's scheming and how they dealt with the native people.
Profile Image for Natasha.
637 reviews29 followers
August 11, 2020
While I always enjoy an author giving voice and agency to a marginalised unheard historical figure - I was disappointed with the lack of depth and development of Granville’s Elizabeth MacArthur. I didn’t feel the connection- and while I admired her tenacity and drive in the face of a completely male dominated society- I wish Granville explored more of her inner workings - her fears, joy and sorrow. I wanted to know her better.
366 reviews1 follower
July 22, 2020
I've really got a problem with blatantly rewriting real people to suit modern narratives.

In The Dictionary of Lost Words (read recently) I felt the author covered the topics Grenville tries to cover here, but more deftly; with more sensitivity to handling the lives of real people. Williams also invents a character through which to experience the world, and gives some of the real people nicknames.

I just felt that Grenville literally rewrote a real woman's experience to suit the point she wanted to make; especially given she frames the book as though the diary is real, then admits at the end it isn't. That leaves me with an awful taste in my mouth.

And I mean I didn't really like the woman she's made up, either.

But mostly, because my least favourite trope is author on board, and this is (in certain ways) a less explicit version of that, I cannot bring myself to give it more than 1 star.
Profile Image for Patricija || book.duo.
585 reviews383 followers
June 13, 2022

Nepaisant savo sudėtingos kolonizacijos ir lyčių nelygybės temos, greitas skaitinys. Nepaisant savo istorinio konteksto, Lietuvos rinkai, spėju, menkai pažinaus ir menkai išmanomo, mokykloje nemokyto, įtraukiantis. Net jei mano istorinių žinių spragos ir nemenkai jautėsi. Spėju, amerikiečių ar australų skaitytojams ši knyga suskamba kitaip – kaip ir turėtų. Įtariu, kad panašiai kaip aš jaustųsi koks italas, skaitydamas, pavyzdžiui, romaną apie partizanus. Jaučiuosi suklaidinta lietuviško viršelio – man jis toks visai ne istorinis, gal net šiuolaikiškas, susisiejantis su kokia knyga apie mišką ar gamtos pažinimą. Bet visų pirma čia – istorinis romanas. Galima jį pritempti prie Jane (kodėl Janės, gerb.anotacija?) Austen kūrybos, bet man gulė arčiau Sue Monk Kidd – teksto paprastumu K.Grenville į klasiką tikrai nesitaiko. Lengvas savo pasakojimo stiliumi, temomis jis kabina daug skausmo – psichinius sutrikimus, blogas mamas ir blogus tėvus, rasizmą, seksizmą, gniuždančią patriarchiją, iškreiptą požiūrį į istoriją ir eilinį įrodymą, kad ją kuria rašantys istorines knygas. Ai, nu ir laimėtojai, aišku. Todėl – baltieji heteroseksualūs vyrai.

Autorė rašo nepaprastai gražiai, melodingai ir įtraukiančiai, tačiau negaliu pasakyti, kad išjaučiau daugiau ką, nei tik pagrindinę veikėją – aišku, ji esminė, bet visgi – ne vienintelė, o ir autorė visai nesusikoncentruoja į tuos jos gyvenimo aspektus, kurie darė ją išskirtinę – verslininkės, fermerės, mokslininkės talentus. Kolonializmo tema čia nebuvo perteikta labai dėkingai – vis tiek gentys čia tik „tautelės“, perprantamos nebent iš mokslinio smalsumo, o ir vis tiek visi tokie truputį prastesni, truputį menkesni ir truputį purvinesni, nei kad patys kolonistai – normalu, kai istorija pasakojama iš tuomet gyvenusios moters perspektyvos, bet žodžius visgi rinko šiais laikais gyvenanti autorė. Man knyga čiut priminė „Mėnulį ir skatiką“, kažkiek – „Troškimų knygą“. Bet bendras įspūdis šiek tiek prėskokas – ne be priekaištų ir ne be niuansų, o galiausiai, spėju, pasimirš greičiau, nei autorė tikėtųsi. Tačiau skaityti gali būti įdomu – aš dabar jau tiksliai žinau, kokių žinių bagažą noriu papildyti ir kokias istorines spragas sieksiu užpildyti.
Profile Image for Jo_Scho_Reads.
664 reviews42 followers
June 17, 2021
An astonishingly brilliant historical tale about 21 year old Elizabeth Veale who lives a simple life with few prospects. But a reckless act changes her destiny and she becomes Mrs Elizabeth MacArthur, wife to John, who is starting his career as a soldier.

In 1789 she makes the arduous journey across the sea with her husband and baby to the newly established penal colony in New South Wales. Despite having no feelings for her husband she begins a new life there; one that will last until her death in 1850.

This absolutely fascinating book is fictional, based on fact. During the renovation of a historic house in Sydney a tin box was found which held the memoirs of Mrs Elizabeth MacArthur; scribblings and thoughts which secretly poured out of this intelligent and fascinating woman, which reveal an entirely different facade to the one on public view. And it’s taken the skill of the author to turn these memoirs into an intriguing depiction of life for those early Australian settlers.

I love any books about Australia, historical or current. I found this one special as historical books tend to focus on men; women weren’t given many opportunities to show their strengths and talents back in the past. But this book is different. It reveals the strength and determination deep within Elizabeth; her passions, her love, her empathy. I find it astonishing that she kept her real self under wraps and that her memoirs were hidden away for so long. But now her story is here. Read it and see for yourself, you’ll be amazed and impressed. I know I was.
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
686 reviews3,396 followers
April 27, 2021
“A Room Made of Leaves” begins with a note from Kate Grenville in the guise of a transcriber and editor who found these pages which are supposedly the secret memoirs of Elizabeth Macarthur, a real Anglo-Australian merchant from the late 18th/early 19th century and wife to one of the most famous and wealthy entrepreneurs in New South Wales at that time. However, at the end of the book Grenville acknowledges “This book isn't history. At the same time it's not pure invention.” This playful ruse makes the novel an immersive fictional experience but it also adds to the sense of what went unsaid both in the historic documents Elizabeth left behind and concerning the circumstances that led this couple who came from humble origins to build a lucrative Australian wool industry. Grenville fictionally reimagines Elizabeth's journey from growing up among provincial Cornish farmers to her challenging marriage to her indomitable husband John to settling in the relative wildness of the New South Wales colony. It's a tale of self-invention, hidden passion and the canny resolve needed to outwit a patriarchal society in order to achieve real independence. Grenville creates a portrait of a woman with hidden veins of emotion while also atmospherically depicting the gritty reality of pioneer life in a foreign land.

Read my full review of A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville on LonesomeReader
Profile Image for Charles Edwards-Freshwater.
279 reviews93 followers
September 1, 2020
A beautiful, intimate portrait of a woman who history has left mostly in mystery, in the shadow of her husband.

I, like many others, went into this book easily fooled that this book was indeed just a collection of memoirs, simply transcribed and made more digestible by Kate Grenville. I was slightly put out when , at the end, I realised that this had all been a trick, but in a way it somehow made me appreciate this stunning novel even more.

It's beautifully intimate, and Elizabeth Veale is a wonderful protagonist who not only enriches the countryside of Devon in earlier chapters but becomes a key fixture in the rapidly developing Sydney. There's a great insight into the early history of Australia here - with attitudes making it clear that white settlers and natives had conflict and the damage that these settlers were doing by partitioning the land. there's also a very sort of Jane Austen feel to the book in some ways - lots of wit, lots of charm, and Elizabeth balances her experiences against good humour and a steadfastness which is completely admirable but also believable.

Simply stunning and I couldn't put it down.

5 stars.
Profile Image for Jan.
800 reviews252 followers
May 6, 2020
This historical novel features a heroine I grew to like but I felt it hard to get to know her as the story skimmed the surface of her life only centering on certain aspects.
The setting was good, the style literary but somehow I was left feeling unsatisfied, there just wasn't enough intimate detail to make me feel I'd really experienced the story, just watched it from the sidelines. It is also very similar to some of the authors previous works, offering a different viewpoint but not sufficiently unique to stand out.
I also found the way conversation was written with no punctuation marks and - he said, I said interspersed throughout jarred with me and prevented the story flowing as well as I'd have hoped.
A good read, but a little lacking in substance and feeling.
Profile Image for Georgia Rose.
100 reviews5 followers
December 11, 2020
2.5 stars

I appreciate the level of research that went into this story. Writing a fictional memoir of a real historical figure is an interesting idea.

Unfortunately this just wasn’t the book for me.
I didn’t get invested in Elizabeth MacArthur’s story. Maybe I’d feel differently about her character, if I knew more about the real woman.

I recently read Richard Flanagan’s “Gould’s Book of Fish”. That book covered a similar historical period. It was also written from the perspective of a recently arrived Brit. It also touched on the frontier violence in the early days of colonisation in Australia, but then sort of breezed on by. Flanagan and Grenville are both great writers, but the settings and protagonists in these two books just weren’t my jam.

I might take a break from this very specific genre of historical fiction for a while.

(If you are interested in exploring the interactions between white women and Indigenous women in that part of Australian history - get your hands on a copy of Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt)
Profile Image for Emma.
2,507 reviews855 followers
August 30, 2020
This is the story of a woman making the best she can from an unfortunate marriage at a time when there was no escape; it is also the story of the first and cruel colonisation of the country and the establishment of the penal colony. Elizabeth’s husband, John MacArthur is a self opinionated bore of a man who Elizabeth learns to manage quite skilfully. They travel to New South Wales where Elizabeth finds her true home, not only the land but home to herself too. Many thanks to Netgalley for an arc of this book.
Profile Image for Cathy.
1,216 reviews230 followers
May 29, 2021
Shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2021, A Room Made of Leaves opens with that oft-used literary device, the discovery of a hidden cache of documents. Adopting the guise of editor, Kate Grenville explains how she came into possession of a box containing the hitherto secret memoirs of Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of one of the most famous and wealthy entrepreneurs of late 18th/early 19th century New South Wales. I’ll confess it had me immediately searching online to find out whether Elizabeth was a real or invented character. As it happens, she did exist in real life.

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Valerie Bader and was initially daunted when I saw it had 131 chapters. However, most are very short helping to give the impression of diary entries.

Elizabeth Veale grows up in Cornwall, her social and financial position giving her limited options in life. Marriage to soldier John Macarthur initially seems to offer a form of escape but she soon discovers she has shackled herself to a man unable to show tenderness and that she is no nearer to being in control of her destiny. What she does demonstrate is a shrewd insight into John’s character: his love of grandiose schemes, of the ‘long game’, his need to be proved right, his delight in catching other people out, and his sensitivity to any suggestion of insult. Generously, she attributes his behaviour to the traumatic experiences of his youth and a sense of inferiority.

Forced to reveal to Elizabeth the existence of a large debt, John announces he has accepted a posting to the penal colony in New South Wales as it comes with promotion. As usual, he’s full of confidence, dismisses reports of troubles in the colony and seems to have no concerns about taking wife and young son half way across the world.

I’ve only read one previous book by Kate Grenville, Sarah Thornhill the final book in her trilogy that started with The Secret River (although I didn’t realize it was part of a trilogy at the time). A theme it shares with A Room Made of Leaves is colonization and the exploitation of the indigenous people. Indeed most of the people Elizabeth encounters regard the indigenous people as ‘savages’, referring to them as ‘our sable brethren’. Only Lieutenant Dawes, a keen astronomer, makes any effort to communicate with them in their own language and understand their customs.

I think your reaction to this book will depend on how much you knew about the real Elizabeth Macarthur before reading it. If, like me, you knew absolutely nothing then your judgment of the book will be based solely on the quality of the writing and the skill with which the story is told. Unfortunately, I found the pace of the book slow at times with scenes of significance recounted only briefly and others, such as Elizabeth’s tea parties (her ‘Antipodean salons’) described in detail. It really only picked up for me towards the end when the reader is finally introduced to the ‘room made of leaves’. And, although I appreciate the author is exploring the line between truth and invention, I continue to find the artificiality of the ‘secret journal’ device unconvincing. Would anyone really keep copies of every letter they sent? Would even the most diligent diarist be able to recall conversations in such detail they could reproduce them verbatim years later?

Readers familiar with the life of Elizabeth Macarthur will be in a better position to judge the ‘playful dance of possibilities between the real and the invented’ described in the book’s blurb. Regrettably, I couldn’t feel the same enthusiasm for the book as the judges of the Walter Scott Prize – which probably means it might well win!
620 reviews1 follower
July 9, 2021
Having re-read this to prepare for a Book Club discussion, I am still captivated by the story-telling skill of Kate Grenville. She has managed to produce a "story behind the story" of John and Elizabeth Macarthur and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it a second time. I really believe that Elizabeth was the main partner in developing the merino empire, especially knowing her family background in England, and also the fact that her husband spent so many years away from the farm.

A wonderfully imagined, and possibly cheeky, interpretation of Australian Colonial history. Once again, Kate has created an engaging set of characters to tell an interesting story that just could possibly be true ?? :-)
What if . . . .

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
619 reviews6 followers
May 11, 2021
This is historical fiction at its best. This is a really emotional and beautiful read about one women’s journey to Australia. It’s a very honest and brutal story in many ways but it is told at the same time with humour and understanding. It shines a light on what life would have been like for a woman in the early days of the settlement in Australia and the relationship between the early settlers and the Aboriginal people. It is a really evocative piece of fiction that is inspired by the real letters of Elizabeth Macarthur and by the things that she they didn’t say.

Elizabeth like many young girls finds herself excited by the possibilities of a new life with a young soldier when she meets John Macarthur but she soon realises that the reality is not what she expected. Her new husband Is a difficult man always following a new dream and devising a new scheme which sees her eventually in New South Wales as John takes up a position as Lieutenant at a penal colony. She arrives to find Sydney a very brutal and forlorn place. As Elizabeth learns to adjust to her new surroundings and life with her husband she discovers new strengths and desires she never imagined.
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