Thursday, April 26, 2007

Reviewing ‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville

This historical novel is set at the end of the eighteenth century and tells the story of William Thornhill who is sentenced in London to the penal colony of New South Wales, Australia.

Behind the lines there is substantial research into eighteenth century London, with its shipping culture along the Thames, life in the Newgate Prison and court proceedings in the Old Bailey. As the plot moves across the sea to Sydney there are detailed pictures of life for men and women in the early days of New South Wales as well as insights into the cultural ways of Australia’s original inhabitants.

The book has an easy style that flows like a river current with a poetic rhythm that is pleasing to the ear. Of their new base in the antipodes, Grenville writes, “It was a sad, scrabbling place, this town of Sydney.

It is a delight to read a book that emerges from the southern hemisphere with its description of the ‘vast, unpredictable sky’, the fierce landscape and the raw Aussie expressions of ‘bugger’, nicknames such as ‘Smasher’ and the frank assessment of the I.Q. of two labourers who were “a few bricks short of a load.”

The Secret River is a sad book that sets a husband and wife against the grinding poverty of early England and amid the violent relationships between the English settlers and the first inhabitants of Australia. Having escaped the hangman’s noose, William Thornhill is to experience further hardship in the strange and unfamiliar city of Sydney. Grenville writes: “There were things worse than dying: life had taught him that. Being here in New South Wales might be one of them.” But the experience of slipping from the noose had given to William and Sal a sense of hope to work at creating a new life. Despite their considerable hardship, readers get glimpses into life’s simple pleasures such as when lying in bed together, William and Sal know they have “got each other.”

This story about two ordinary, inarticulate people is about communication. Standing with his life in the balance at the Old Bailey, where lawyers are making claims and witnesses are giving testimonies, William is “struck by the power of words.” As the book traces the developing relationship between Sal and William their partnership is nurtured by words, yet in difficult periods they struggle to find and say the right words. The absence of words and language with which to communicate with the aborigines becomes a barrier to understanding. The power of words becomes as evident as it was when back in the dock Thornhill received his ‘sentence’.

In this book that was listed for the Man Booker Prize, Kate Grenville explores the themes of nakedness and concealment, scars and secrets. The title of the book suggests there might be a river that is deeper and more secluded than the Hawkesbury cutting through Australia, upon which navigation is extremely difficult.

Tracing the voyage from the Thames in London to Thornhill’s Place in New South Wales, this book examines the concept of place and what makes the difference between outsiders and insiders, strangers and settlers. It explores the dynamics when one is forced from one’s home and the longings and dreams to arrive at an existence where one can say this is ‘my own’ or ‘my place’. But even if one has the receipt for the land and a certificate of ownership in the drawer and a villa surrounded by poplars and rose gardens within a protective wall, does this fill the emptiness or is it another prison? What is the remedy for homesickness? What does it mean to be ‘at home’? How does one make a life for oneself?

Geoff Pound

Book Details: Kate Grenville, The Secret River (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2006).

Image: Front Cover of The Secret River.