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The Secret River by Kate Grenville

The Secret River (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Kate Grenville

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1,978None3,403 (3.82)429
Title:The Secret River
Authors:Kate Grenville
Info:Canongate (2006), Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:owned, literary fiction, Australia, aboriginals, moral issues, audible, audio

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The Secret River by Kate Grenville (2005)

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William Thornhill is born into poverty in 18th century London, only achieving modest prosperity after being apprenticed to his childhood sweetheart’s father and becoming a bargeman working on the River Thames. But after the death of his parents-in-law, the accumulation of debt and repossession of his boat drives them back into the spiral of poverty, and Thornhill begins thieving to make ends meet. Caught and convicted of stealing a load of Brazil wood one night, he is sentenced to transportation to New South Wales, accompanied by his wife and infant child.

Australia, though a harsh and alien land to the English convicts, was in some ways also a land of opportunity. Granted his ticket of leave, Thornhill soon realises that this is a place where he can accomplish something impossible for him in England: the possession of land. Establishing a freehold on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, he has his first encounters with the native Aboriginals, and soon comes to realise that he can only accomplish his dream by dispossessing others of their land.

Grenville’s sense of place is evocative. You can feel the cold fog of London, Thornhill working in the Thames up to his waist, the living hell of Newgate Prison. The scruffy, struggling colony of Sydney is equally as immersive – the heat, the insects, the bizarre nature of the trees to a European eye:

She was inclined to take it personally about the trees,wondering aloud that they did not know enough to be green, the way a tree should be, but a washed-out silvery grey so they always looked half dead. Nor were they a proper shape, oak shape or elm shape, but were tortured formless things, holding out sprays of leaves on the ends of bare spindly branches that gave no more protection from the sun than shifting veils of shadow.

The Secret River runs an inevitable course towards violent confrontation between the settlers and Aboriginals, but does so without seeming preachy or heavy-handed. The novel is told entirely from Thornhill’s point of view, but despite being pushed into horrific acts, he remains a sympathetic character. There is no question that the British Empire brutally dispossessed Australian Aboriginals of their land, their culture and their heritage, and that they remain a discriminated underclass two centuries later. But what had never occurred to me before was that in many cases, the people directly killing them and taking their land were an underclass themselves: Britain’s poor, forced into crime by desperation, and sent to a distant land where their only chance of prosperity was to go to the fringes of settled land and naturally come into conflict with the locals. Thornhill’s determination to own land is not motivated by greed, but by fear; he knows what it is to be poor, and wishes to secure a future for his children. It’s a sad story, and Grenville masterfully balances our sympathy for the Aboriginals with our sympathy for a poor, stricken man given the tantalising chance to create a bulwark against starvation and misery.

The Secret River is excellent historical fiction; I could recommend it for the opening London chapters alone. But it becomes truly great after Thornhill’s transportation to Australia – a sad and frightening novel of two cultures colliding. ( )
  edgeworth | Apr 16, 2014 |
This story explores the effect Australia had on the main characters and the way they both cope with the unknown in their new circumstances.
  risikat | Feb 18, 2014 |
The Secret River, by Kate Grenville, tells the story of a convict from London who is transported to Australia in the early 1800s and sets out to create a new life for himself and his family. In doing so, he must contend with the natives who were already living on the land.

I found the beginning and end of the book most engaging, while the middle somewhat lost my interest. The stories of settlers in "new" (to them) lands are not ones that especially grab me. I read this book because it sounded like it would go beyond the simple settler story to address something more universal. In some ways, it did. I think Grenville did a good job of making the main character sympathetic, despite the atrocious ways he behaves near the end of the book. The ending was especially good here, because it showed that despite getting what he wanted, life was not all roses in the end.

It is likely that her portrayal of the white settlers' behavior in Australian is fairly accurate, but it still bothered me greatly to read about how cruel people were towards the natives. The book did a decent job of showing the mindset of some of these people and what could propel them towards certain behavior, but it only went so far and still left me wondering in the end how people could act with such cruelty. Furthermore, this book tells a story strictly from the whites' perspectives. We do not see what the natives think or feel about things other than through the whites' interpretation of their behavior.

In the end, I think The Secret River is well-written, but I was disappointed that it did not pull me in as much as I was hoping. I believe there is a sequel, and I am not sure whether I will read it or not. ( )
  sbsolter | Feb 6, 2014 |

A heartfelt novel about early convict settlers in New South Wales, which combines the intense personal drama of eking out a precarious existence on marginal cultivatable land with the brutality of the English settlers' conflict with the indigenous Australians. Apparently rooted fairly strongly in fact, though I don't think that affects my judgement of it as a novel one way or the other. Certainly made me realise how little I actually know about Australia. ( )
  nwhyte | Jan 25, 2014 |
Author Kate Grenville paints a powerful picture of the conditions that were awaiting the early convicts that were transported to Australia and the conflict between them and the Aborigines in The Secret River. Sent to this new and strange land not by personal choice but from conviction by an English court and, after working off their sentence, it was very difficult to return to England. Instead they were encouraged to claim a piece of land from this seemingly empty continent. Of course the fact that it was populated by a native population was discounted and these people were dismissed as “naked savages”. That this was the way of things time and time again as white people “discovered” new continents does not make this story any less harsh.

William Thornhill was born into the lowest class of English society, raised in poverty, and even though trained as a waterman on the Thames River, still had to rely on petty thievery as a way of making ends meet. He was eventually caught and sentenced to be transported to Australia. Along with his pregnant wife and young son, he embarked on a life changing adventure. It wasn’t long before Thornhill knew that he had no desire to return to England, that he and his children had a far better chance at improving themselves by staying in Australia. His wife, Sal, felt different and was counting the days until they could return. Taking up property and building themselves into people of consideration was his goal, but standing in the way were the Aborigines who felt that these interlopers had no right to fence the land or claim the crops as their own. When violence escalated, Thornhill had to make a difficult decision. Pack up and leave or stay and sweep the Aborigines from his land.

This was a wonderful piece of historical fiction both well written and researched. The characters, especially William Thornhill are complex, multi faceted people that express real human emotions. There is a general sense of foreboding as we can see both a future confrontation between Will and his wife, as well as the build up of tensions with the natives. The author tells a very emotional story without the reader feeling manipulated. This is an in-depth look at how this land was settled by violence through mutual incomprehension and lack of understanding. ( )
2 vote DeltaQueen50 | Dec 18, 2013 |
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This novel is dedicated to the Aboriginal people of Australia:
past, present and future.
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The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
Grenville's Australian bestseller, which won the Orange Prize, is an eye-opening tale of the settlement of New South Wales by a population of exiled British criminals. Research into her own ancestry informs Grenville's work, the chronicle of fictional husband, father and petty thief William Thornhill and his path from poverty to prison, then freedom. Crime is a way of life for Thornhill growing up in the slums of London at the turn of the 19th century—until he's caught stealing lumber. Luckily for him, a life sentence in the penal colony of New South Wales saves him from the gallows. With his wife, Sal, and a growing flock of children, Thornhill journeys to the colony and a convict's life of servitude. Gradually working his way through the system, Thornhill becomes a free man with his own claim to the savage land. But as he transforms himself into a trader on the river, Thornhill realizes that the British are not the first to make New South Wales their home. A delicate coexistence with the native population dissolves into violence, and here Grenville earns her praise, presenting the settler–aboriginal conflict with equanimity and understanding. Grenville's story illuminates a lesser-known part of history—at least to American readers—with sharp prose and a vivid frontier family
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Following a childhood marked by poverty and petty crime in the slums of London, William Thornhill is sentenced in 1806 to be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. With his wife and children, he arrives in a harsh land to a life that feels like a death sentence.… (more)

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Four editions of this book were published by Audible.com.

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Canongate Books

An edition of this book was published by Canongate Books.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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