- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1 edition (Jan. 23 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0006395384
- ISBN-13: 978-0006395386
- Product Dimensions: 13.7 x 2.2 x 20.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 322 g
- Average Customer Review: 8 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #90,961 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Secret River Paperback – Jan 23 2007
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About the Author
KATE GRENVILLE was born in Sydney, Australia. Her bestselling novel The Secret River has won numerous international awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book. It was also a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. The Idea of Perfection won the Orange Prize for Fiction, Britain’s most valuable literary award. Grenville is also the author of several other novels and three books on the craft of writing. She lives in Sydney with her family. Visit her online at kategrenville.com.
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The novel, inspired and loosely based on the author's own ancestor, follows young William Thornhill from his family's desolately poor circumstances in London in the late seventeen eighties to Australia where he, as a deported felon, is given a second chance to build a better existence for himself and his beloved Sal, his childhood sweetheart, wife and centre of his emotional life.
William is a big, simple fellow, illiterate, a "waterman", used to ferrying people and goods from one side of the Thames to the other. Once arrived in Sydney in 1806, and released into the custody of his wife, he takes up his trade again while Sal manages the household, an increasing number of children as well as some lucrative business on the side. After joining Thomas Blackwood, a former acquaintance, on his trade ship, supplying a scattered group of settlers along the Hawkesbury river and bringing their goods back to the city, William discovers and nurtures a new ambition: owning a piece of land and settle into future comfort with his family. Grenville sensitively captures the deep emotions awakening with his plan while at the same time, and subtly, hinting to the reader at his naivety and the complexity of any such endeavour.
The primary impediment to his and other settlers' ambition is that the land around the small farm holdings is not "empty" of inhabitants, i.e. a "terra nullius", despite the official British definition of the colony at the time. The countryside around Sydney and elsewhere across the land had been lived in by aboriginal peoples for the longest time, their philosophy and lifestyle so different that is was bound to result in conflict with the Europeans. Grenville portrays every possible kind of likely encounter between settlers and Aboriginals: from quietly tolerating each other with or without efforts to communicate and trade to the different levels of conflict and violent action and counter action in the attempt to rid the land of the "blacks", accompanied by any name calling imaginable. In the bars in Sydney and at social gatherings among the neighbouring settlers - all "emancipists", meaning former convicts - the fisherman's yarn usually centres around the most recent attack by blacks, or new ideas how to chase them away or worse.
Thanks to his wife's strong sense of morality and her important influence over his own understanding of reality, William, in due course the proud occupant of one piece of land along the river, is increasingly torn between the promise he made to her not to engage in violence, but rather to "give a little - take a little" when dealing with his aboriginal neighbours, and the pressure from other settlers to take a strong and decisive stand against the "blacks". How much should he share his worries with his wife? While Sal remains William's moral compass, Grenville uses the changing levels of the couple's intimacy as a delicate barometer to reflect which side of his inner conflict is gaining the upper hand. In the end, William is forced to take the most fateful decision of his life: it sets the direction for his future in more ways than is to be expected. While he may have convinced himself that he HAS become "another person altogether", the question nevertheless lingers for the reader for quite some time.
Kate Grenville has presented us with an essential book, the importance of which reaches far beyond Australia and the early (and later) treatment of its aboriginal peoples. Through an engaging and dramatic narrative, she has painted a portrait of a group of people, centred around William Thornhill, all in a way representative for early settlers, their challenges and missed opportunities or not. She is letting the facts speak for themselves and the different voices present their individual standpoints. Rather than moralizing with the 20/20 perspective of hindsight, she gives the reader much food for thought and reflection and instills the curiosity for more reading on the early history of Australia. [Friederike Knabe]
In 1806, William Thornhill, convict, arrives in New South Wales transported for the term of his natural life.
In Kate Grenville's words: 'He had been condemned to death, and then to life.'
He is assigned as a convict labourer to his wife, Sal, and 8 years later is free to claim 100 acres along the Hawkesbury River.
William sees a future in New South Wales whereas Sal would like to return to London. This tension - between the known and the unknown - is one of the underlying themes of the novel. While personal to William and Sal, it also underwrites much of Australian colonial history.
When the Thornhills move to the Hawkesbury we see firsthand the impact of european settlement on the indigenous inhabitants. While the novel concentrates on the european perspective, it does not ignore the original inhabitants.
As The Secret River moves beyond the story of William Thornhill, convict, into the life of William Thornhill, emancipist, so New South Wales develops from a convict outpost to a european settlement in a foreign country.
This novel was inspired by Kate Grenville's research into her own family history.
Grenville's story isn't new. Thousands of people were "transported" to Australia after 1788, some escaping the gallows, while the rest relieved the intense pressure of British gaols. Thornhill was lucky in his wife Sal's appeal to escort William being successfully considered. There were few women in Port Jackson, and a wife brought stability. Grenville offers a fine touch of irony in William's being "assigned" to Sal as a "working convict". Again, as he had in London, William becomes a waterman - helping a boat owner ferry cargo up and down the Hawkesbury River. While conveying along the river, Thornhill spots a point of land amenable to homesteading.
Thornhill and Sal begin scrabbling a home in the bush, but immediately confront a major obstacle. The key issue in "founding" the nation of Australia is that it was already occupied. Although the British Privy Council would declare an entire continent "terra nullus" - unoccupied land - , the Aborigines, who had lived there for thousands of years, knew otherwise. Grenville grants Thornhill more humanity than most of his neighbours. Some of that is due to Thornhill's wife, Sal, but the former Londoner isn't a fixed mentality. He's adaptable and enterprising without avarice. Grenville's description of Thornhill's initial and later dealings with the Aborigines, and the many confrontations that occurred as other settlers moved in, forms the centrepiece of her narrative. Europeans were astonished at how easily the Aborigines moved in the forest. Silent, evasive, intimately knowledgeable about the land, the Aborigines were vulnerable only to bullets - and something else the British had available.
While Thornhill wants peaceful coexistence, circumstances force other conditions. Others, of course, are less tolerating and the history of British settlers slaughtering those non-existent Aborigines might have started at Thornhill's Point. The British population, both free and under sentence, is growing. Farming and pasturage put pressures on land unable to support two vastly different lifestyles. The skirmishing diminishes Sal's relationship with her husband. Fearful for their children and herself, she threatens to take them to a settlement for safety. As pressures mount, the interaction of husband and wife grows quietly intense. Grenville portrays the conflicting loyalties - husband and wife, Thornhill and his land, the couple and their neighbours, humanity offsetting avarice - with clarity and feeling. You are kept spellbound as the story takes you to the resolution of this web of emotion.
NOTE: "The Secret River" is the fictional tale of Kate Grenville's own transported London ancestor. Those wishing to understand how history influences a writer's choices are directed to Grenville's "Searching for The Secret River for the effort that went in to making this novel. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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The author started out to write a book on her family history in Australia.Read more