Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Searching for the Secret River is Kate Grenville’s account of how she came to write The Secret River. Her interest began with her great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman,who was the original ferryman at Wiseman’s Ferry. Her mother had told her stories about him, but she wanted to know more about what he was like and what he might have done when he first encountered Aboriginal people.

It is a fascinating book detailing how she went about her research into family history and how she imagined his life from facts gleaned from the records and the places he had lived.

She writes about reading. As a short-sighted child reading was her whole life:

I read in the bath, I read on the toilet, I read under the desk at school, I read up in my tree house, feeling the branches of the jacaranda swell and subside under me.

I can identify so well with this. I was a short-sighted child and read everywhere too, walking round the house, in bed under the covers with a torch when I should have been asleep, all the places Kate Grenville read, although not in a tree house – I would have loved a tree house!

She writes about writing. As a writer she couldn’t help examining how other writers went about their writing – seeing how books had been made. One book that helped her with writing The Secret River is Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, a novel based on historical events in which some of the characters are apparently versions of real people. She had come to the point in her book where she had written lots of notes, forty-seven folders of notes!! So she made lists to try to organise her writing and then began just writing scenes and descriptions of various aspects – about London and Sydney, the convict system, and what she called ‘elements of memoir.’ But she thought that lots of her writing was dry and dead.

Reading Anil’s Ghost, however she realised that she had to take herself out of the book and find a character to carry out the search for the story of Wiseman and his dealings with the Aboriginal people. To do this she had to see the scenes before she could write them:

The hard part of the writing wasn’t finding the words – they seemed to come reasonably easily. If they started to come reluctantly, I stopped writing and began with something else. The hard part was finding the picture. Once I could see and hear the moment, I could write it.

In her first draft some parts were in the first person, some in the third person, but always from Wiseman’s point of view. The first-person point of view seemed right but then she decided that that didn’t match Wiseman’s character and there were things she wanted the book to say that Wiseman couldn’t say – about the Aboriginal culture for one thing. So, it had to be in the third person, but the ‘third person subjective’ – ‘from Wiseman’s point of view but only partly in his voice.’

There is so much in this book – the research, the notes, the descriptive passage, the numerous drafts, finding the right voices, the characters, identifying the central drama of the novel, the right eighteenth century names, developing Wiseman into a character, renaming him William Thornhill and building a picture of the Thornhill family. Then the dialogue had to be right, to be convincing. She listened to a recording of Robert Browning, went through transcripts of Old Bailey trials, looked at how Dickens, Defoe and other writers put words into their characters’ mouths.She remembered her mother’s and grandfather’s sayings, phrases and idioms. In the end she decided that she wouldn’t try

to reconstruct the authentic sound of nineteenth century vernacular. My job was to produce something that sounded authentic. … I read all the dialogue aloud. If anything hit a false note, it was obvious straight away. This was a bad one for example: ‘That bit of land, he said. Remember, I told you. We’ll lose it if we don’t move soon.’

This sounded terribly drawing-room. I muddied it up: ‘that bit of land, he said. Remember he telled you. We’ll miss out if we don’t grab it.’

She deleted large sections of dialogue.

The whole book is compelling reading, not just because it’s about how she wrote the book and the enormous amount of work she put into research, but also because in itself it paints a picture of life in London in the late eighteenth century and Australia in the early years of settlement in the early nineteenth century. I was captivated from start to finish.

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.