Sunday 26 July 2009

The Secret River

This was the reading group's book for August. I had already read one book by Kate Grenville - The Idea of Perfection - which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this one. While I did enjoy the book, it is not as good a novel as The Idea of Perfection. The Secret River is the story of the Thornhill family's attempt to settle in Australia, New South Wales, to be precise. The main action takes place in the early decades of the 19th century, when Australia was beginning to be settled by British convicts. And William Thornhill was one of these convicts.

After a short prologue which describes the Thornhill's first arrival in Australia the story really begins with Will Thornhill's early life in London. And a pretty miserable life it was, with poverty and violence always a short breath away. Will gradually makes a kind of living for himself as a lighterman on the Thames, but has to rely on stealing in order to make a decent living. Will marries his childhood sweetheart, starts a family and things are looking good when tragedy strikes and he loses his boat and house and the family enter a downward spiral of living in wretched lodgings and Will relies more and more on stealing. Inevitably he gets caught and is sentenced to death. Reprieved, he gets sent to New South Wales as a convict. Luckily for him, his family get to go with him. This part of the book reads very much as a sub Dickensian tale. Perhaps this is inevitable. After all Dickens was a master of this kind of writing. The London section is important though in describing the kind of life from which the Thornhills were to escape.

The rest of the novel is set in New South Wales. At first in Sydney, where Will finds work as a boatman and his growing family begin to settle down. He has steady work ferrying produce between Sydney and the farmers inland up the Hawkesbury river. However Will longs to have a place of his own and sets his heart on claiming a piece of land by the river. This is where the tale gets more interesting as of course the land is not empty, but used by the Aboriginal people. The rest of the novel is the story of how the incoming settlers interact with the "blacks". In the main this interaction takes the form of unremitting racism, hostility and outright violence on the part of the British settlers. One or two settlers try with some success to reach some kind of agreement with the Aborigines, but they are completely outnumbered by the rest. The Thornhills are somewhat in the middle. They are more scared than outright hostile. As neither the settlers nor the Aborigines understand each other's language there is little chance of some common ground emerging. Incidents develop and in the end the settlers decide to rid the area of the Aborigines, which they do by attacking their camp while they are still asleep. The resulting massacre clears the area and the remaining Aborigines are herded into reservations. The Thornhills prosper and Australia as a whole begins to prosper.

This in bare bones is what the novel is about. However the contacts between the Thornhills and the Aborigines are sensitively treated and Grenville does justice to both sides. There are some quite amusing scenes and the Thornhills gradually realise that the "blacks" are in fact sensitive, cultured and very skillful people. One of their sons plays with the Aborigine children and learns many of their ways and skills. Will's wife Sal becomes quite friendly with the women from the Aborigine camp. However there is no mutural understanding on the part of the adults. Will is determined to retain his 100 acres and cannot understand why the Aborigines don't just go somewhere else and leave him alone. Will's involvement in the massacre is in part involuntary and he is more an onlooker at the brutality than an active participant. He knows his wife would be apalled by the massacre and dare not tell her what actually happened. The story is that the "blacks" just up and left.

Grenville paints a vivid picture of life in the early decades of British settlement in rural New South Wales. The isolation, the hardness of the land and the constant fear of death at the hands of the Aborigines. The other characters are all colourful in their own way and all ex-convicts. Some are particularly nasty specimens and there is some rough justice in that two of the worst characters, Spider and the aptly named Smasher both die horribly from spear wounds in the final massacre. Though the Thornhills like the other settlers win in the end, it comes at a price. The son who mixed with the Aborigines leaves home and never returns. His wife, Sal guesses what happened but will not speak about it. Will himself though he becomes a successful businessman always seem to carry around within him the burden of the terrible price that others had to pay for his success.

In many ways this little tale is a microcosm of the birth of Australia - the bloody birth pangs of the new white Australia.

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