In search of the second book for Global Reading Challenge Australia read, I found myself wanting to read Kate Grenville’s work. The Secret River received many accolades and I found it to be most deserving of high praise. Warning: Contain minor spoiler.
Thornhill’s story begins in 1777 London, where he has been born into extreme poverty. The family is too large and too far down the social scale to be able to get along by strictly honest means, and Will, decent at heart but pragmatic in his approach to the business of staying alive, ekes out his meagre earnings with the proceeds of petty crime. When he marries Sal, the daughter of a local waterman, he seems to have the chance to set his life straight; but with the untimely deaths of his parents-in-law he finds himself adrift again, unable to support his wife and the young child she has borne him. Desperate for a little extra money, he takes one risk too many and ends up before an Old Bailey judge, accused of theft. Initially condemned to death, he is saved from the hangman’s rope by Sal, whose activities on using a gifted letter writer to appeal the death sentence his behalf result in the more lenient sentence of transportation to Australia.
It’s at this point in the narrative the novel settles into the somnambulistic, out of the world daily lives of the Thornhills in the new area. The Thornhills practically clean out the bush area and plant their crops and sustain their livelihood from scratch.
I feel what Will feel when he looked at the plot of land that he decided to name Thornhill’s Point, “that place was a dream that might shrivel if put into words (page 112)”. The territory he imagines as “the blank page on which a man might write a new life” is already inhabited by the aboriginal people of the area. The signs of other lives, and his attempts to ignore or obliterate those signs result in direct confrontation with the aboriginal people of the area.
Will’s confused longing for a piece of land stamped with his own name leads him to join other settlers along the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury river. There he carves out a place for himself and his growing family, building a hut, tilling the soil.
A man’s life seemed a cruel race: to get himself and his family above the high water mark, safe from the tides and contrary winds, before his body gave out.
A man who redeemed from his past mistake and start anew in his life full of hope and ambition only to be taunted by the possibility of losing his land to an unseen shadow lurking around his home.
Sal wants to go home, back to London, but Thornhill wouldn’t. After 20 years, Grenville captured the feeling of immigrants who stay half their lives in another adopted countries very well:
He did not spell out to her what they both knew: that they were never going to return to that Home. Too many of the important parts of their lives had happened here. For them, Home was nothing but a story. If they were to go to London they would be outsiders, with their sun burnt skin and their colonial ways. But they would be places with a shrunken look about them, places from a story that belonged to someone else.
As interracial tension escalates into murderous violence, resulting in blood in ones hand, makes one unable to feel at peace with the ultimate gain. I particularly love this final passage of the book:
For all it was what he had chosen, the bench he sat on here (in Thornhill’s new mansion, when he is rich) felt at times like a punishment. He had never forgotten the narrow bench in the passage at the Watermen’s Hall, where William Thornhill had sat with dread in his heart to see whether he could become an apprentice. That bench had been part of the penance a boy paid for the chance at survival. This bench, here where he could overlook all his wealth and take his ease, should have been the rewards.
He could not understand why it did not feel like triumph.
Grenville might have used the opportunity to bring home a straightforward moral or political message, but she didn’t. Instead, she invites us to examine our own thoughts about the fights that eventually broke out between the occupier and the natives, about the different self-belief at work and to reflect on a tragedy of mutual incomprehension. One driven by territorial possession another with no clue about the concept of landownership. Many a times I think to myself if only the new comers extended a hand of friendship and attempt to make the first connection to learn from the natives and natives from the new comers, surely the tragedy could have been avoided?
The book is very vivid in images, the landscape and sight and sounds are described in every detail. The scenes of mass massacres and the brutality of one suffered from the spear is very real and disturbing, it’s like watching a movie, the images stays with you long after you put down the book. I also learned about how the penal system works in those days, it was eye opening. It was a 9-month voyage to Australia. Wow.
This is one book that may work in my head long after I put down the book. When I put down the book I decided to score it a 3.5, and then while writing a review I decided it should be a 4. The only reason it didn’t escalate any higher is because of the prose. It is too rich and it took me about 2 or 3 false starts before I got hooked on to the story and finished it in one breath. I mentioned it is somnambulistic because of the way the italic dialogues play in your mind. It’s like talking in your sleep. It’s strange what italic sentence does to my head.
It was not an easy book to read for me, perhaps when I finished this review, it would be a 4.5, for the only reason that Grenville does write some great sentences that stop you on the track and ponder; and in this book, there are many such stoppers.
Great book if you take the time to savour and read it, I didn’t. I blame it on the chaotic state of my mind rather than the book. I couldn’t ask for a better introduction to Australia than this book.
I’m reading this for Australiasia Global Reading Challenge 2010. (One more book to go and I’ll complete the challenge! Yay!)
Paperback. Publisher: Canongate Books, 2006; Length: 349 pages. Setting: 1806 – 1814 New South Wales, Australia. Source: Library Loot. Finished reading at: 12 June 2010
About the writer:
Kate Grenville (born 14 October 1950) is an Australian novelist and teacher of creative writing. She holds degrees from the University of Sydney, University of Colorado, and University of Technology, Sydney.
Grenville was one of three children born to Kenneth Grenville Gee, a lawyer and later judge, and Isobel Russell, a pharmacist. After completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, she worked in the film industry, mostly editing documentaries at Film Australia. In 1976, she went to the UK on a working holiday for six months, and ended up being away for seven years. She lived in London and Paris, and wrote fiction while supporting herself by doing film-editing, writing, and secretarial jobs. In 1980 she went to the University of Colorado at Boulder to do a Masters degree in creative writing. She returned to Australia in 1983 and became a sub-editor at SBS Television in the subtitling department. She won a literary grant in 1986 and left SBS to pursue her writing. For many years, the University of Sydney allowed Grenville to use a room in which to write and, since the early 1990s, she has been an honorary associate of the university.
In 2006 she was awarded a Doctorate of Creative Arts by the University of Technology, Sydney for which The Secret River and Searching for the Secret River were significant submissions for her Doctorate under the supervision of Associate Professors Glenda Adams and Paula Hamilton.
- 1984 – The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for Lilian’s Story
- 2001 – Orange Prize for Fiction for The Idea of Perfection
- 2006 – Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her novel The Secret River
- 2006 – New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for fiction for The Secret River
- 2006 – New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, Community Relations Commission Award for The Secret River