“Do not believe too quickly.” – Elizabeth Macarthur
What if Elizabeth Macarthur—wife of the notorious John Macarthur, wool baron in the earliest days of 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.
A Room Made of Leaves is the internationally acclaimed author Kate Grenville’s first novel in almost a decade, once again showing how she is one of our most original writers. It is historical fiction turned inside out, a stunning sleight of hand that gives the past the piercing immediacy of the present. Delivering this tale as a journal is a stroke of genius. We’re there, with Elizabeth, really getting to know her as she adds each entry.
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 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 the reality. 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. Even Kate Grenville’s author note at the end is a reminder of that. 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. There are other important, current themes too – certainly around the dispossession and treatment of Aboriginal people, and also the convicts.
As always, Grenville has superbly evoked the period, and more, by telling this story from a female perspective. Australian history is still the domain of white men. Here, we view of one of Australia’s most significant historical figures, John Macarthur, through his wife Elizabeth’s eyes. In return, she manages their loveless marriage carefully, so while not escaping her fate, certainly somewhat shapes it. Elizabeth, like so many women of that era (or any era) marries, only to realise she’s made a mistake.
Grenville’s latest book sings—from the stunning cover, to the polished short sections with headings such as ‘Eavesdropping’ and ‘First Cousin to the Truth’, to the rich writing and vivid descriptions. Kate Grenville is a writer who does more than simply tell a story – she masterfully weaves you into it. A Room Made of Leaves is superb.