I have recently read Kate Grenville‘s historical novel The Secret River. You can read my review here.
Straight after finishing the novel I went on to read her follow up book Searching for the Secret River.
In this second book she goes into great detail about how she researched the novel. The story is based upon the life of her great-great-great grandfather, but she took the facts gleaned from family history and extensive research both in London and in Sydney over a five year period and transformed it into fiction. She has used fact as a broad brush in the hands of her imagination and the finished novel is brilliant. It gives the reader a much clearer view of life in the early years of settlement in the young Australian colony.
Searching for the Secret River is a fascinating expose on the thinking processes of one of our leading authors. Grenville takes us on a journey from the first inklings of an idea for a book through to the finished product. At first she was planning a non fiction book but she struck so many obstacles along the way that she changed tack completely, fictionalising it and letting her imagination run. I’m pleased she did.
While she does address some of the issues faced by all writers of fiction, this is not a handbook on writing. Sure, she does explain why she changed from first to third person, but generally it was the research that so intrigued her that she recounts in the first part of the book. Throughout she grapples with her attitudes, and those of the settlers, towards the Aboriginal people who would have lived in the Sydney area during the time in which she sets her novel. She was confronted by some very unsavoury discoveries. The reader of the novel is likewise confronted by some of the events of those days. Australian history is not always the clean, lovely accounts I read as a student many years ago.
While she has drawn from actual historical records, her novel is not another version of history. ‘I was shameless in rifling through research for anything I could use,’ she writes, ‘wrenching it out of its place and adapting it for my own purposes… What I was writing wasn’t real, but it was as true as I could make it.‘ (Grenville p. 210) She has been criticised for her (alleged) misuse of history. I think she has achieved what most other writers struggle with – she has made history come alive for the reader.
- Grenville, K, 2007, Searching for the Secret River. WF Howes, Leicester.
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.