Book review: The Secret River by Kate Grenville
I’ve recently read Kate Grenville‘s novel The Secret River on the recommendation of a friend. I can’t recall if I’ve ever read any other works by this prominent Australian author, but will certainly be looking at her other books in the future.
The story begins in London and follows the story of William Thornhill, a boatman on the Thames. He is involved in a misadventure which lands him in jail and sentenced to hang. Fortunately his wife’s family has connections, and his sentence is commuted to transportation to Australia as a convict ‘for the term of his natural life.’ His wife and young family are allowed to travel on the same convict ship, but as free settlers in the new penal colony at Sydney.
The story grabs the reader as Thornhill and his family struggle to survive. After some years he gains his freedom. Through hard work and many setbacks they eventually establish a farm they think of as their own. The indigenous population see things much differently and the inevitable conflict arises. This is a dark and often tragic part of recent Australian history, the ramifications of which we are still attempting to work through.
Grenville has drawn some memorable characters, especially in Thornhill, his wife Sal and her longing to some day return home to London, and some of the minor characters living near them. Their daily endeavours are well documented, set against the ever present strangeness of the unfamiliar landscape. Grenville also carefully plots the growing problem they had with the local Darug people who had lived here at one with the environment for millennia.
Interestingly, this story was inspired by the author’s family history. Her great-great-great grandfather was Solomon Wiseman after whom Wisemans Ferry, near modern Sydney, is named. While the novel is fiction, the author has drawn heavily upon historical records of the day, including those of her family. Thus we have in the novel a blurring of the line between historical fact and an author’s imagination as expressed in the fiction of the story.
This blurring resonates with what I am attempting to do with my own work in progress, a children’s novel set in Nepal which draws on actual historical events.
The Secret River is an important work by a highly acclaimed Australian author. It has rightly won many awards, including:
- Winner, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2006
- Winner, NSW Premier’s Literary award 2006
- Shortlisted, Man Booker Prize, 2006.
Grenville, K 2005. The Secret River. Text, Melbourne.