- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

THE LIEUTENANT
By Kate Grenville
Grove/Atlantic, $24, 320 pages

HOME SAFE
By Elizabeth Berg
Random House, $25, 260 pages

THE YEAR THAT FOLLOWS
By Scott Laser
Knopf, $23, 256 pages

In 1788, a young British marine, William Dawes, accompanied the First Fleet transporting British convicts to Australia. He was a scholar in mathematics, astronomy and languages, and left a record of the language of the indigenous people of the Sydney area.

Kate Grenville has used Dawes’ story (and the language he recorded) as the basis for her exquisite new novel, The Lieutenant. Ms. Grenville has created a magnificent work of fiction that encompasses the excitement of adventure, the thrill of discovery, the mysteries of the unknown, the ambiguity of relationships and the ethical and moral dilemma of choosing between duty to country or to mankind.

Daniel Rooke “had been born with the urge to understand how things worked. He could read in five languages. The unknown was his daily bread: astronomy was a profession of mysteries. Difference held no fear for him.” Always an outsider, Rooke’s education led him to the Marines and at age 24, he volunteered to join the ship carrying the convicts King George III was sending to New South Wales as the expedition’s astronomer.

The flora and fauna of Australia were “a different logic from the world Rooke knew. There were trees, as there were in other places, but each was stranger than the last. Some were mops, with a bare pole for a trunk and a bush of foliage twenty feet above the ground. Gnarled pink monsters twisted arthritic fingers into the sky. The squat white trees growing by the stream were padded with bark that flaked in soft sheets like paper. … Even the rocks were not like any others he had seen, monstrous plates and shards piled haphazardly on each other.”

Rooke built a small hut to serve as a primitive observatory. A girl-child among the group of naked natives who frequently visited the red-coated lieutenant became his teacher/pupil in an exchange first of words and then of ideas.

Not directly involved with the day-to-day struggle of the settlement, Rooke was happy translating words and phrases of the new language into his notebooks until he was ordered to join a party sent out to capture six of the native people for punishment because the British “gamekeeper” had been fatally speared by one of them.

When Rooke discovers that the orders are to deliver the men alive or their heads in bags, he realizes that “[i]f an action was wrong, it did not matter whether it succeeded or not, or how many clever steps you took to make sure it failed. If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong.” He surreptitiously leaves the expedition, knowing that he has forfeited his future and will have to endure punishment for insubordination.

At the heart of The Lieutenant lies the conflict that has long troubled modern man, a conflict given voice at Nuremberg: What is a soldier’s obligation to disobey an order when it is against the law of humanity. Therein lies true tragedy.

•••


Helen Ames is the lonely central character in Elizabeth Berg’s new novel, Home Safe. Miss Berg is a prolific author — this is her 18th novel — and “Home Safe” could be classified as a well-written “woman’s novel.” But it is more than an apparently superficial tale of the relationship between an emotionally needy mother and a clinging daughter. The balance between independence and supportive love is sometimes acquired late in life.

Helen, recently widowed, is a successful writer experiencing writer’s block since the unexpected death of her husband. She concentrates on her daughter, Tessa, calling, visiting, and generally making a nuisance of herself.

Helen is persuaded to teach a course in writing “to a group of purposely disparate types, both from a literary and a sociological point of view.” The class stimulates teacher and students, one of whom becomes Tessa’s suitor. Some of the novel’s best passages are in the works of Helen’s pupils.

Then out of the blue, Helen discovers that her husband had spent most of their savings to secretly build a dream house for Helen in California. The architect, Tom Ellis, persuades her to visit. Tom reawakens desire in her and she ultimately finds the solution to the house and her life.

Despite Helen’s irritatingly overbearing relationship with Tessa, she is an endearing character. For her, “life is like gathering berries into an apron with a hole. Why do we keep on? Because the berries are beautiful, and we must eat to survive. We catch what we can. We walk past what we lose for the promise of more, just ahead.”

•••


There are moments when Scott Lasser’s words exhibit some fine writing and insight into the human condition, but for the most part, The Year That Follows is banal, despite some interesting ideas.

Mr. Lasser’s premise is a universal issue: what constitutes “family” and What is the relationship within families, parents to children, siblings to one another

Sam is an 80-year-old man with a heart condition, transplanted from Detroit to California, where he lives with a loving companion. “He thinks that the way women forgive and forbear is an essential element on the planet, like water.”

Sam knows he is dying. He has asked his 44-year-old daughter, Cat, a divorced mother with an 8-year-old son, to visit him on the first anniversary of the death of his son, Kyle. He agonizes over whether to tell Cat that she is not really his daughter, but the child of a man her mother knew before she married, and later divorced, Sam.

Cat grew up in Detroit where she sells mortgage refinancing, having long given up her dream of becoming a lawyer. Her brother was a successful stockbroker in New York. On the day before Sept. 11, Kyle told Cat that he thinks he may have fathered a boy just born to an old girlfriend. Kyle and the baby’s mother both die in the Twin Towers.

The story alternates between Sam’s musings on his condition and his failed relationship with his children, and Cat’s attempts to find her brother’s child while at the same time starting a relationship with a former high school sweetheart.

Sam dies without telling Cat about her parentage, for he has come to understand it is love and care that creates the family bond, not blood. Cat, who has known the truth all along, finds the baby and happiness.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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