My Australian reading selection for my Around the World Reading Challenge was a real treat: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, first published in 2006.
The subject of The Secret River is Australia’s colonial past as a dumping ground for English convicts. William Thornhill, the main character, is transported to New South Wales in 1806 as his punishment for theft. Originally, he was sentenced to hang, but he was granted a reprieve and sent to New South Wales for life instead, along with his wife and children.
In 1806, New South Wales is still not much more than a howling wilderness for someone used to the teeming streets of London. Grenville begins the novel with Thornhill’s first impression of his new home, and his sense of isolation is palpable:
“Now, standing in the great sighing lung of this other place and feeling the dirt chill under his feet, he knew that life was gone. He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him. This was a place, like death, from which men did not return. It was a sharp stab like a splinter under a nail: the pain of loss. He would die here under these alien stars, his bones rot in this cold earth.” (11)
I found this beginning captivating and could not help but read on. I was not disappointed. One of Grenville’s gifts as a writer is her ability to recreate times and places in vivid detail. After the opening chapter in New South Wales, Grenville takes us back to Thornhill’s childhood in the slums of London. William grew up poor—so poor that he was cold and hungry all the time. Grenville gives Dickens a run for his money in her ability to recreate the stink and squalor of London. Not surprisingly, Thornhill turns to thievery as a way to make a living. Eventually he gets caught, which gets him sent to Australia.
Thornhill’s initial despair at finding himself in such desolate surroundings begins to shift. He realizes that in this new country, he could escape the taint of class and become someone new—a landowner, one of the gentry. He sets his sights on a piece of land that seems to promise him this new life and claims it for his own. He moves his wife and brood of children to this unprotected space with high hopes.
As it turn out, however, this land is far from vacant: aboriginal people have been living there for thousands of years, and they have no intention of moving. This tension between English settlers and the aboriginal peoples forms the basis for the rest of the narrative.
I highly recommend this book, which was based on the life of one of Grenville’s ancestors. Grenville is a superb writer who makes history come alive. The characters are complex and realistic, and her portrayal of class and racial tensions is astute.
Her novel makes me want to read more literature from Australia and New Zealand. Can anyone recommend others to me?