English Passengers by Matthew Kneale
| first chapter
Booker finalist, Whitbread Novel of the Year
This tragicomic romp through nineteenth-century colonialism involves a bungling smuggler-captain, a slightly insane preacher, a nasty racialist, and a Tasmanian half-caste. Much of my enjoyment came from the narration of each chapter by one of 25 characters, each with a plausibly distinct voice. Set aside the narration, though, and you still have well-rounded characters, an exceptionally clever plot, and an undergirding of impeccable historical research. This is one of the best books I have read in my lifetime.
Incidentally, I have recently a spate of historical novels with a similar theme - The True History of the Carey Gang (sympathetic Australian proletarian bank-robber narrating), Gould's Book of Fish (magical-realist Tasmanian prisoner-madman narrating), and Star of the Sea (rich and poor Irish escape the famine). English Passengers would be my first recommendation of the lot and Star of the Sea would be a close second. Carey Gang and Gould's would be a somewhat distant third and fourth respectively. I'm looking forward to Kunal Basu's third novel, which is about nineteenth-century race science, since it might complement English Passengers well.