This book appeared on my reading list for English this semester, and it has been such a long time since I read it, I decided to reread it – something I don’t do very often these days. So, yes, this is the first reread on this blog, and there will probably be a few more before the year is out. I remember referencing The Secret River a lot when I reviewed The Lieutenant, so we’ll see how those comments match up now.
In England, William Thornhill is a man condemned to death. Waiting to be hanged for a petty crime, he is saved by his wife, and the two of them, with their young son, are shipped out to the fledgling colony of New South Wales. When they arrive, William is caught up in the beauty of the land, and decides to move his growing family to the Hawkesbury to make a living. When local Aboriginal tribes cause them problems, however, everything starts going horribly wrong.
I remember loving this book the first time I read it – about two and a half years ago. I was expecting it to be overrated, considering the hype around it at the time, but I do remember loving it a lot. Is that love still there? I think maybe not as much as before. Reading this in the context of the work I’m doing at university about Aboriginal perspectives in literature, I can’t help but feel this book fails to realise it at all. What it does do brilliantly, though, is create a character you sympathise with totally, understand perfectly his motives for doing what he is doing, and by the end of the novel, you just want him to be happy. William’s history in London and the way he was treated by society there gives him the impetus to want to be an independent person when he comes to New South Wales but, of course, there are other people already there.
Other than this excellent central character, Grenville gives us a plot that unfolds perfectly. To be fair, the beginning is very slow, and I personally found the first two parts, set in London, to be pretty uneventful and stock-standard historical novel fare. It does, however, make sense in the course of the novel for her to go this far back to explain what happens later. The book really kicks off, though, in the later parts, where William is desperately trying to keep his sanity, family and new farm under control, along with the threat (real or imagined) of Aboriginals, and the craziness of the other people that live on the river. The psychological games between the two sides of this story grow and grow in complexity, until everything comes crashing down. Grenville devotes an entire section to the confrontation between the settlers and the Aboriginals, and it, more than anything else, is the reason you should read this book. It’s so beautifully done, you feel sorry for everyone. This gives the ending a sense of uneasiness, of incompleteness – while William has ‘won’, and becomes a successful settler, he is haunted by what he has done, and there is this sense of deep unhappiness. William himself realises that he can never be truly connected to this land as the original owners were.
Kate Grenville has come under fire for grafting 21st century sensibilities onto her characters in this novel. I’d just like to dispel that myth now. While Thornhill is perhaps more likely to question whether or not the extermination of an entire race is necessary, he still participates fully in the eventual acts, and the end of the novel places him firmly in the ‘killer’ camp.
Questions, also, of this novel providing justification for the genocide of the Australian Aboriginals are, however, more tricky. Certainly this book provides us with a sympathetic white main character, without providing balance on the other side. But perhaps that’s the whole point of the novel – there was never any chance for dialogue between the two sides. It was always a matter of the settlers inducing violence, it was a just a question of when it would start to happen. And with Thornhill, the pressure from the people around him (who are also very nicely drawn, and are perhaps your more typical white settlers of the time) to act in response to what is going on meant that he was always going to be murdering. This, more than anything, is, I think, what this book is about.
So, yes, this book is still almost as good as I remember it. It certainly made some waves at the time, and hopefully will continue to do so. Definitely a future Australian classic.