Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Secret River

The Secret River by Kate Grenville delves into an important and dark part of Australian history. In fact, as I write that, I wonder which part of (white) Australian history is not dark. The history of European settlement in this country has been short and brutal. If it isn't the indigenous people that are being exploited and abused, it's been one of the many waves of immigrant groups. Grenville takes us back to that first wave of violence and hatred.

The novel concerns itself with William Thornhill, a Londoner who begins his life in vivid and abject poverty. The scenes in London are some of the most powerful in the novel and are key to establishing the audiences' sympathy for Thornhill. It is essential that we see his desperately poor background so that we can understand the painful and complex situations he encounters in colonial Sydney and his soul-destroying desire for property and status. Thornhill's life in London is so precarious that a few short months mean the difference between life as a reasonably successful apprentice, and a life of poverty, crime, imprisonment and, finally, transportation to the convict colony of Sydney for him and his family.

Grenville imaginatively captures Thornhill's first impressions of Sydney, which is little more than a shanty town in the early 1800's. How those first convicts and settlers experienced this alien landscape with its bizarre wildlife and flora is a subject that I find fascinating and Grenville captures it vividly. The image of a vulnerable, reluctant population desperately clinging to life on the edge of vast, hostile land is one that still resonates in Australia. Our current drought and desperate water shortages only serve to reinforce the tenuous relationship we have with this landscape.

Thornhill begins to work on a boat that transports goods from the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, and Sydney itself. The Hawkesbury is the 'secret river' of the title, a river that is reluctant to be found, winding its way through thick forests and high cliffs and only revealing its secrets to those who know the way. On the Hawkesbury, Thornhill spots the piece of land that he falls in love with and must make his own. Of course, after dragging his wife, Sal, and family to settle on the land, he finds that it is by no means un-occupied and is eventually drawn into conflict with the local Aboriginal inhabitants. Thornhill ultimately is forced to chose between his land and his moral conscience, and it is to Grenville's credit that his actions are presented as morally complex rather than simply judged by twentieth century ethical standards.

Grenville is a powerful writer. She transports the reader into the minds of her characters and allows us to sympathise with them, even when we feel that maybe we shouldn't. It is this moral complexity that makes The Secret River such a successful novel, and such an important novel for contemporary Australia.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Secret River is the worst book that I have ever read and a complete waste of time to be studying.
Kate Grenville should be shot for her abysmal writing and lack of talent.

Also, every internet page on The Secret River is absolute crap and doesn't display any information that could be classified as useful or intelligent.
Do us all a favor and actually put up some information that is useful for understanding the text.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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