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The Secret River by Kate Grenville

The Secret River (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Kate Grenville

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2,028953,301 (3.81)444
Title:The Secret River
Authors:Kate Grenville
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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This is an excellent historical fiction novel about life in the early colonies of Australia, or New South Wales as it was called at the time. The book follows the life of William Thornhill who grows up in utter poverty in London at the end of the 18th century. He falls in love with and marries Sal, whose father works on the Thames and apprentices William as a waterman. Things start to turn the corner for William and he sees a way that his life could turn out ok. Unfortunately circumstances change and he ends up in Newgate for stealing, condemned to death. He is granted life, but shipped with his wife and son to Australia. This first part of the book was familiar and nothing new to me - I've read many historical fiction novels about the poor and down-trodden in London - but the life the family leads in New South Wales was a different story.

Thornhill fairly quickly buys his pardon and gets enough cash working on the water to have some options. The one he chooses is to break into the uncharted forest with his young family, staking his claim on a hundred acres of land with no regard for the native blacks who already live there. The struggle between him, the other white settlers, and the natives is dark and brutal. I certainly wasn't rooting for Thornhill or the other settlers. Grenville does a convincing job of portraying the mindset of Thornhill, how he could think it was his right to claim this land, without beating the reader over the head with "deep messages". I thought she also kept an eye on how his time in poverty and as a prisoner affected his need to own land and kept him always wanting more. The book is told from the perspective of the white settlers, but she manages to still show how well the native society functioned, even though it was so different from the white society and the settlers really didn't understand or value it at all.

Overall, I thought Grenville handled this time period with a lot of insight and depth. Though the subject matter was hard to read about, I highly recommend this book. ( )
1 vote japaul22 | Aug 8, 2014 |
A disturbing but exceptionally well-written and researched historical novel about the early settlement of Australia. I was very interested in the background story in London of William Thornhill and was tearing through it but when the family moves to land on the river and tries to settle it, I could see the coming confrontation with Aborigines and I just slowed and stopped for a while. I finally pushed on but it really was horrific when the final massacre of the natives happened. I could not read some of the more graphic parts and I really kept wishing that he had just turned around and left his land. The ending was very enigmatic; Thornhill becomes very successful but it seems all the settlers have a very hollow victory, indeed. I'm thinking about Crossing this one, I'm not sure I have the strength to read it again.
  amyem58 | Jul 3, 2014 |
There was nothing in this book to make it stand out from all the other stories of a man (sometimes with a wife or a wife and children) who is forced out of his current situation and heads to the wilderness to start a new life. He has to kill a lot of people along the way but makes a success of himself, becomes wealthy and yet has some dissatisfaction. ( )
  cacky | Jun 23, 2014 |
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. ( )
1 vote 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 |
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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

Two editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 1921351861, 1922147427

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