Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Secret River by Kate Grenville, for Australia Reading Month

Title: The Secret River
Author: Kate Grenville
Publication: Blackstone Audio, 2005
Narrator: Simon Vance
Genre: Historical fiction
Setting: 19th century Australia
Description: William Thornhill, his wife Sal, and son Willie are transported to New South Wales in 1806 – a more merciful option than hanging him for theft but still a dramatic and terrifying change from the destitute but familiar life they knew in London. Will is fortunate that he is skilled with boats and he is able to scrape a living transporting goods while Sal sets up a mini-saloon in their hut, selling rum pilfered from Will’s client. When Will falls in love with a piece of land, he is determined to claim it for himself and his growing family. The English/white government ignores the native people and allows the former convicts to claim 100 acres and settle it. Will has secured a pardon and persuades Sal to leave Sydney so they can become landowners. Their dreams are not the same and she is horrified by isolation and the hostile natives but she agrees to give it five years, hoping they will return to London. However, the native people refuse to go away and Will has to make a choice about how he will respond if he wants to maintain his homestead.
My Impression: This is an enthralling story that probably merits 5 stars. Listening to it on audio, narrated by the award-winning Simon Vance, added to the suspense as I always seemed to reach work or home at an exciting bit and the feeling of impending doom was very strong. There is a sense of imminent disaster throughout the book that makes for stressful listening or reading, yet adds to the power of the story. At first, I was waiting for Will to be caught stealing because I knew it was inevitable, even apart from the fact that I knew the plot involved his being transported for theft. Then I was waiting for something dreadful to happen to Will or his family after they reached rural New South Wales, not yet realizing the most terrible thing that could happen would be something Will did, not an act against them. Will faces a moral dilemma: follow the example of the harshest Emancipists and kill the natives to protect their homesteads and their families or give up the land which he sees as his way to establish his legacy.
Sal tightened her shoulders into herself and leaned towards the fire, not looking at her husband. They had never disagreed on anything that mattered. He wished he could explain to her the marvel of that land, the way the sunlight fell so sweet along the grass.
But she could not imagine it, did not want to. He saw that her dreams had stayed small and cautious, being of nothing grander than the London they had left. Perhaps it was because she had not felt the rope around her neck. That changed a man forever.
Sal yearns to return to England, not sharing Will’s lust for land and failing to realize as Will does that as a former convict he would not be accepted back in London, even with money.  She is just as impressive and vividly drawn character as her husband: not only can she read and teaches him how to write his name but it is her efforts while Will is in prison that results in his death sentence being commuted to transport. She makes homes for her family in a new country out of barely anything. Most importantly, she sees the humanity of the natives more clearly than Will who only has glimpses. She recognizes the evil in the white settlers who enjoy gratuitous violence. However, even Sal can’t understand Blackwood’s advice for dealing with the natives: “Give a little, take a little, that’s the only way,” and the whole time I was listening I wondered if Will could have compromised in some way to avert disaster.
She lay back down under the blanket and after a moment he heard a long sigh from her. I don’t want that Smasher showing his face here no more, she said. That man’s going to bring down trouble on the whole lot of us. He heard a darkness in her voice. It was the sound of someone who was prepared to yield, but against the grain of what she believed.
This is my 25th book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and also my first book for the Australia Reading Month of Brona’s Books. Based on the author’s ancestors, this is a very powerful glimpse of the early history of Australia. I look forward to more by Grenville.   I'd like my book group to read this book but, as I have said before, they don't all like historical fiction as much as I do.  They're missing out!

Source: Library


Buried In Print said...

I thought this was a remarkable story too. If you don't already have it on your list, there is a non-fiction book about the research and discovery process she undertook to write this set of stories (there are a couple of other volumes related to this novel as well).

JaneGS said...

Since my father's 4 sisters and parents moved to Australia from England after WWII, I really should read more Australian fiction since I literally have dozens of Aussie cousins. This one sounds really good.

CLM said...

Marcie, other than noticing this book is the beginning of a trilogy, I hadn't examined her books but a nonfiction book about researching The Secret Rivers sounds very interesting; thank you for mentioning it. I gather there was some criticism about her depiction of the Aborigines but I can see that would be tricky, given the story is told from the perspective of the Emancipists. I found it very convincing.

Jane, I haven't reread it for ages but I am also a big fan of Sara Dane by Catherine Gaskin, also set during this timeframe. This is more literary but both are great reads.

TracyK said...

I have not read anything by this author, but this sounds like a book I should read. I have enjoyed some fiction set in Australia but haven't read anything that tells about its early history.