Penguin, £6.99stg

Earlier this year, an unusual development arose during the final judging of one of Britain's most prestigious literary awards. The Whitbread Prize Book of the Year Award (the most hotly contested category) looked as though it might be a draw - until Tim Rice stepped in. As the literary world held its breath, Sir Tim used his casting vote to award the £22,500 prize to Matthew Kneale's 'English Passengers' ahead of Lorna Sage's familial memoir, 'Bad Blood'.

There's nothing like a formidable dose of publicity to thrust a book into the spotlight, but does Kneale's work wince under this unflinching glare? Most definitely not. This epic, sea-faring tale of class, colonial and cultural conflict is written with exceptional originality. Thoughts of class struggle on the waves, and colonial oppression in Australia against a nineteenth century backdrop may not initially whet your appetite, but the plot soon reels the reader in.

Manx smuggler Illiam Quillian Kewley is Captain of the Sincerity. A convivial man and fond of life's simple pleasures, his plan to sell an illicit cargo leads him to the other end of the world, blighted by debt and saddled with an odd coterie of fellow-travellers. A geologist vicar, a racial theorist doctor and an amoral botany student are bound for Tasmania in the belief that the real Garden of Eden can be found there.

The story is told from various angles through a series of simultaneous narratives. Peevah details the brutal treatment meted out to the Aborigines by the British, Convict Jack Harp is trapped in a draconian cycle of redemptive punishment, the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson and co-traveller Dr Potter descend into competitive bickering, while Captain Kewley's luck is thwarted at every turn.

Kneale's work is a phenomenal achievement. Despite its fictional form the book is rooted in the historical – something that requires much research. His writing is fluid and constantly engaging, capturing a wealth of accents and dialects. Kneale also manages to juxtapose the tragic story of the native Palawa (Aborigines) and comic, petty tales from the Sincerity with abundant sensitivity. Taken at face value, 'English Passengers' bears the hallmarks of a traditional rip-roaring sea-faring yarn, but in reality it's far more complex and prismatic. Tackling class, race, culture and history and inverting stereotypes, it offers insight into one of the darkest episodes of British colonialism with humour, objectivity and intelligence.

Sinéad Gleeson