Rating: 4 Stars
‘The Secret River’ was not intended to be fiction. Author Kate Grenville was researching her own ancestry and the early settlers of Australia for a possible work of nonfiction when that idea germinated into something else. Many of Australia’s initial settlers did not come to that land voluntarily. They were, to put it euphemistically, His Majesty’s ‘guests’ – meaning that they had been prison convicts in England who were exiled to the remoter outposts of the British Empire for crimes ranging from poaching to piracy.
The Secret River’s protagonist William Thornhill lands in New South Wales in 1806 for committing larceny against his employer. He is luckier than many others in some respects. He arrives in the new land penniless, but with his spunky wife, Sal, into whose custody he is remanded for one year. Life for the Thornhills is difficult in the new land, but it wasn’t much easier in the old one either. Slowly, Thornhill realizes that he may achieve in the colony what would have been impossible back home. He is determined to shoulder his way into prosperity. There is only one obstacle – the country’s original inhabitants, who see no reason why they shoud ‘b..... off’ on any one’s say so.
There is between the Aboriginals and the white settlers a chasm of non-understanding that makes the eventual outcome as inevitable as it is tragic. The ‘good’ settlers treat the Aboriginals with condescension laced with unease. The ‘bad’ ones use the racial tension as a pretext to commit the worst kind of atrocities. However, Grenville’s sensitive treatment of the hostilities is even-handed. Habituated as they are to a hunter-gatherer existence, the Aboriginals seem maddeningly oblivious to the concept that the fruit of other men’s labors are not theirs for the taking; that in the eyes of the enraged farmers, that is theft. Yet, when violence erupts it’s a cruelly mismatched contest that cleaves our sympathy to one side.
Grenville makes the Australian wilderness come alive in the imagination with her luminous prose. Beautifully written, yet with a gritty rawness that makes no attempt to gloss over the harsh edges of reality. I would consider the book’s greatest strength its characterization. William Thornhill especially, is depicted with a compassion and depth similar to Pearl Buck’s Wang Lung. Whatever Thornhill may lack in wisdom or empathy, he makes up for with his doughtiness and dogged persistence. Like the Aboriginals, he too has nowhere else to go; and like them, he is also fighting for his own survival and that of his family.
“A man’s heart was a deep pocket he might turn out and be amazed at what he found there.”
The winner of the 2006 Commonwealth Prize, this is an evocatively written book of quiet passion. Territorial aggression and blood-letting are the unfortunate foundations of our shared history. While it may be impossible to set right the wrongs of the past, the least that can be done is remember that some have paid a heavy price for the success of others.