The Secret River by Kate Grenville: a Book Review

Every now and then I read a book that completely captivates me and transports me to another world and The Secret River by Kate Grenville is one of those books. I know a book is a good book for me if I abandon any other books I’m reading and can’t wait to get back to it each time I have to put it down. This is one of those books.

It begins:

The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Now it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales. There was hardly a door, barely a wall: only a flap of bark, a screen of sticks and mud. There was no need of lock, of door, of wall: this was a prison whose bars were ten thousand miles of water.

This is historical fiction, straight-forward story-telling following William Thornhill from his childhood in the slums of London to Australia. He was a Thames waterman transported for stealing timber; his wife,Sal and child went with him and together they make a new life for themselves. It’s about struggle for survival as William is eventually pardoned and becomes a waterman on the Hawkesbury River and then a settler with his own land and servants.

The novel raises several issues – about crime and punishment, about landownership, defence of property, power, class and colonisation. The settlers take land owned by the ‘blacks’ – the Aborigines – with the inevitable resulting conflicts and atrocities on both sides. It begins with confrontation between William and the ‘blacks’ as William tries to negotiate a relationship with the Aborigines who unknown to him owned the land he had been granted. But it’s not the only conflict he has to deal with because he also has to contend with some of the  other English settlers on neighbouring land who have a much more violent attitude towards the Aborigines. Although William has a longing for the land he does not have the same identification with it as the Aborigines do:

‘˜Jack slapped his hand on the ground so hard a puff of dust flew up and wafted away.  This me, he said. My place. He smoothed the dirt with his palm so it left a patch’¦ Sit down hereabouts.’ …

… there was an emptiness as he [Thornhill] watched Jack’s hand caressing the dirt. This was something he did not have: a place that was part of his flesh and spirit. (page 344)

It’s a well-paced narrative with good descriptive writing setting the scenes vividly in their locations. It’s rhythmic expressing moods, the differences in cultures and the mounting tension. There are some stereotypical characters, but the main characters, William in particular, are convincing. Their dilemmas they face come over as real as they struggle to come to terms with their situations.

I found this book difficult to put down and it has lived in my mind for days – a dramatic and vivid story and thought -provoking as well. There are two more novels by Kate Grenville about Australia’s history – The Lieutenant, published in 2008, and Sarah Thornhill, published earlier this year. I hope they’re as good.