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Secret River, The by Kate Grenville
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Secret River, The (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Kate Grenville

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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. ( )
  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 |
http://nwhyte.livejournal.com/2234828.html

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 |
This book belongs to the best sort of historical fiction--where the author never loses sight of her story as she attempts to create an accurate historical setting and social conditions. The story isn't always comfortable. The characters aren't always likable. But the narrative keeps moving.

For anyone who lives in a country that had colonies, and for anyone who lives in a country that used to be a colony--where settlers invaded land with no regard for the rights of the native population--I would call this book necessary reading. ( )
  brocade | Oct 18, 2013 |
Australian convict settlement
Marions ( )
  IreneEMP | Jul 3, 2013 |

I am an Australian of Anglo-Celtic and Northern European background, meaning that my ancestry is English, Cornish, Irish, German and Danish, with a bit of Scottish thrown in for good measure. I was born in Sydney, where I still live. More than five generations of my ancestors on both sides were born in Australia. This takes my roots in the country back to the early 19th century, which in white Australian terms is a long time. One of my ancestors was a convict transported from Ireland because he committed a petty theft. There's every chance that I have more than one convict ancestor. My ancestors were not wealthy people. They have been farmers and shopkeepers and salespeople and musicians and housepainters. My family history attaches me to this place. It is in my blood. Even though I am resolutely urban in my background and my preferences - both my parents, all of my grandparents and most of my great-grandparents were born within the ten kilometres or so which separates the centre of Sydney and the beaches in its eastern suburbs - I am attached to the Australian landscape. The high, bright blue sky, the beaches and the rivers, the scent of gum trees and native flowers and the sound of native birds are all part of me. As much as I love travelling and as much as I can appreciate other, softer landscapes, the one which surrounds me is the one which moves me the most.

For all of these reasons, this is a novel which speaks to me. It probably should be compulsory reading for all Australians and certainly for all Australians whose ancestors arrived in colonial times. This is their story and it is in many respects an ugly one.

The central character, William Thornhill, is a boatman on the Thames, who lives in grinding poverty with his wife and child. In 1806, having been convicted of a theft committed to feed his family, Thornhill's death sentence is commuted to transportation to the penal colony of New South Wales. Over time, Thornhill achieves the status of an emancipated convict and settles on a stretch of land on the Hawkesbury River. In this environment, he, his family and other white settlers come into contact with the local indigenous inhabitants. The indigenous people have no reason to leave the area just because settlers move in, planting crops and building huts and fences. However, the fences cut off their food sources and this makes conflict inevitable. Ultimately, Thornhill has to decide what he is prepared to do to keep the land which has become his obsession.

Fundamentally, the novel is about the Australian colonial experience. The title has two meanings. To Thornhill, the Hawkesbury River is a "secret river" because its entrance from the bay into which it feeds is hard to find. However, it's also a reference to the phrase used by anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner in a lecture in 1968 when he described the brutal acts of genocide against the indigenous people by British colonisers and the subsequent silence about these events, as "the secret river of blood in Australian history".

The narrative describes some horrific events. It also suggests that these events occurred not because evil people wanted to commit unspeakable acts, but because of a total lack of understanding between the white and the indigenous communities. These were groups of people not simply separated by language, but by their entire way of life. The indigenous people had no concept of private ownership and did not build fences. From the point of view of the settlers, this meant that the indigenous people had no relationship with the land. Nothing could be further from the truth and the colonisation of this land meant the dispossession of the original inhabitants. The effects of this dispossession reverberate more than 200 years later.

Grenville creates a strong sense of time and place. While the narrative is exclusively from Thornhill's point of view, she allows the reader to understand how the conflict affected both sides. Just as the indigenous people had nowhere to go when their land was taken away from them, poor settlers (in the early days most of them, like Thornhill, were emancipated convicts) also had nowhere to go. They could not return to England and they had to make the best of what they had here. For them, making a living from the land was an economic imperative, a matter of life and death for themselves and their families. But rather than learn about the land from those who already lived there - and who would have been prepared to share it - they imposed their ways, with devastating consequences.

A few days after finishing the novel, I am still haunted by it. I can understand that the narrative will not have the same affect on those who are not connected to the history it tells. But I feel part of that history and Grenville's work really speaks to me. I almost took away a star because of a phrase which was so frequently used that it started to irritate me, but that impulse subsided after I finished reading. My lasting impression will be of the atmosphere Grenville created and the insight and sensitivity she demonstrated in telling the story.

I decided to read the novel now in anticipation of seeing this theatrical adaptation of the novel next month. The play has been adapted from the novel by one of my favourite playwrights and will be directed by one of my favourite directors. I'm looking forward to seeing it more than ever. ( )
  KimMR | Apr 2, 2013 |
“That man, in his red coat and his gold braid, was as irrelevant to what was happening on the Hawkesbury as was the King, or even God Himself.” (261)

In early nineteenth century London, William Thornhill, once a young waterman with promise, and his wife, Sal, fall on hard times. When Thornhill is caught stealing to feed his family, he is spared the gallows on condition of exile to New South Wales, Australia. He, along with his family, is transported to Sydney; but their new home is a harsh and foreign land which they struggle to understand. Eight years in, Thornhill is pardoned, and he sails up the Hawkesbury River to make claim to one hundred acres of land in hope of building a new life for himself and his young family.

But the land along the river is inhabited by aboriginals who see it as their own. Thornhill, quick to temper and feeling entitled to some good fortune given years of hard luck and hard labour, refuses to let go the dream of his own place, Thornhill’s Place. His doggedness will force him to make decisions from which there will be no turning back. And an impenetrable silence settles between him and Sal, who is imprisoned by the very dream that frees her husband.

“Whatever the shadow was that lived with them, it did not belong just to him, but to her as well: it was a space they both inhabited. But it seemed there was no way to speak into that silent place. Their lives had slowly grown around it, the way the roots of a river-fig grew around a rock.” (325)

The Secret River is a fabulous read. I confess I did not know that Australia was settled, at least in part, by England’s exiled convicts. Grenville use of Thornhill’s story to depict early nineteenth century colonialism is brilliant. Her writing is brawny, and her attitude unembellished, and I think both strike an effective note, given that we know what was the fate of Australia’s aborigines:

“He could hear the great machinery of London, the wheel of justice chewing up felons and spitting them out here, boatload after boatload, spreading out from the Government Wharf in Sydney, acre by acre, slowed but not stopped by rivers, mountains, swamps. / The thought made him gentle. There won’t be no stopping us, he said. Pretty soon there won’t be nowhere left for you black buggers.” (215)

This is my first novel by Grenville, but I will be back for more. Highly recommended. ( )
6 vote lit_chick | Mar 1, 2013 |
A beautiful book. It certainly deserves all those awards that it has won. It transported me back in time and what a sad and dreadful time it was both in England and Australia. I felt sorry for those transported across the sea to the unknown land but then it left me with mixed feelings as I felt sickened by the harsh treatment of the poor aboriginal people whose lives were so attached to the land. What a clash of cultures! There is much to think about after reading this book ....... ( )
  Carole888 | Feb 13, 2013 |
A beautiful but harrowing story. Grenville at the top of her game. ( )
  sianpr | Feb 9, 2013 |
William Thornhill is born into poverty and the slums of London in the 1880's. In many ways, a good person at heart, William is also a complex character. "He grew up a fighter. By the time he was ten years old the other boys knew to leave him alone. The rage warmed him and filled him up. It was a kind of friend." p. 15

Shortly after marrying his beloved wife, Sal, he is sentenced to death for stealing wood. However , his sentence is commuted to transportation to Australia " for the term of his natural life"

His wife and growing family accompany him to the "sad scrabbling" p75 town of Sydney in 1806. There he labours for " His Majesty's Government " as England colonizes Australia.

As time goes by, William a loving husband and father, wishes for more dignity and patch of land to call his own. Very much against his wife's wishes, William moves his family to a very isolated piece of bush on the side of Hawkesbury River, a spot with which he has become smitten.While the young family tries to eke out a plot of land, slowly they realize that in fact this land is already occupied by aboriginal people. Internally frightened and not really understanding the aboriginal people and their culture , William acts aggressively and angrily with these people.

This is a powerful story, and the climax, in which many white men confront the aboriginal people, evoked anger, sorrow and even rage within me. I felt ashamed to to a part of the white race that has so often attempted to colonize other countries by our own villainous treatment of indigenous people. The Secret River shines a powerful and unflinching light on the clash between the forces of greed and entitlement felt by many colonizers versus the aboriginal people.

Very graphic, grim, unsettling and powerful , The Secret River will stay with me for a long, long time.

4. 5 stars ( )
6 vote vancouverdeb | Feb 4, 2013 |
This is a very good story about William and Sal Thornhill. William is a convict sent to Australia, where he is released into his wife's custody. William tries to make a life for himself in this new land, aspiring to being a landowner. Along the way, he makes moral choices that affect his family and his own sense of himself. William is a deeply flawed character, very real. Kate Grenville has done an amazing job of telling his story in an even-handed manner. Was William at fault, or were his choices virtually inevitable because of the society he lived in? ( )
  LynnB | Jan 31, 2013 |
As we were travelling between Brisbane and Sydney we crossed over the impressive bridges spanning the wide Hawkesbury River. Little did I know that I was probably travelling directly over the homestead of this novel’s protagonist, William Thornhill.

This well-written novel deserves the awards it has won. Set in the very earliest days of the colonial settlements in Sydney, the story follows William and his devoted wife as they try to make the best of a bad situation after William is driven to theft by penury.

Deported to Australia with his wife as his guarantor, they set about establishing themselves and do a pretty good job of it. William worked as a Thames boatman and so his skills transfer nicely to the fledgling colony. It’s not long before he’s landed a job on board a boat running up the sparsely settled Hawkesbury River.

It is on his first trip that he sees a patch of land and is smitten by it. But the land is not as unoccupied as he thinks. Thus begins an all-too-familiar tale of settlement, local friction, attempts at mediation and a final tragic ending. Grenville tells the tale with a lot of compassion on both fronts, which I appreciated. Ultimately though, this is a book with a bittersweet ending.

Stories like this should be much more common than they are. Not long ago, I had an opportunity to settle in Australia. But travelling through it and seeing the colonial legacy first hand, I began to feel uncomfortable with being white there. I was glad I read this book in the UK after having left Australia. It would have made me feel even more inclined to leave. ( )
  arukiyomi | Jan 2, 2013 |
The Secret River is an excellent book with well-drawn characters. It tells the story of William Thornhill, a British man sent to Australia in the early 1800s for theft. As he and his family build a life in this new land, he begins to see that it might be possible for him to achieve more materially than he ever dreamed possible - but he might have to do horrific things to achieve them. The book has great descriptions of the characters, the land, and the family life William and his wife share with their children. ( )
  mhanderson | Dec 6, 2012 |
I should note first of all that this is not strictly crime fiction although it is based on Australia's convict (criminal) past and the main characters are felons, and murder does occur.

What it does do for the reader is give a pretty authentic portrayal of early 19th century New South Wales, a harsh penal colony. It gives a snapshot, in a "no holds barred" sort of way, of a convict, ticket of leave, family who pioneer life on the Hawkesbury River and eventually begin to call New South Wales home.
I say it is authentic because it has all the features of research well done and resonates with what I know of colonial history, but also tells me a little more.
It highlights 19th century beliefs about the aboriginal population whom the authorities did not regard as owning the land because they didn't farm the soil. It illustrates the resultant conflict between the aborigines and the convict/emancipist settlers on what was then the frontier of the colony.

The reading experience is made all the more enjoyable by the excellent narration skills of Bill Wallis.

So why did I read it?
I read almost exclusively crime fiction and decided that this year I would challenge myself to read outside the genre occasionally.
This is the first one I'm managed.
THE SECRET RIVER is the first of a trilogy set in early Australia.

It won the Commonwealth Prize for Literature; the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction (the NSW Premier's Prize); the Community Relations Commission Prize; the Booksellers' Choice Award; the Fellowship of Australian Writers Prize and the Publishing Industry Book of the Year Award.
It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker Prize and longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin prize. ( )
  smik | Oct 17, 2012 |
"I ended this book on a note of anguish."
read more: http://likeiamfeasting.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/secret-river-kate-grenville.html ( )
  mongoosenamedt | Sep 17, 2012 |
Interesting characters, beautiful writing - this was a fantastic novel. Fascinating historical setting, and a time and place I knew very little about. Highly recommended. ( )
  NeedMoreShelves | Sep 15, 2012 |
You've read this story before. It's the story of a nation begins, carved out of the wilderness by white Europeans who neither understand nor care about the natives who live there. Except, this time the nation is Australia, and Grenville, a writer of some power, writes about events and people inspired by her own family who descended from transported convicts. The novel is written with lots of love, but it's a far cry from her absolutely stellar, "The Idea of Perfection."

Read more reviews at http//:thegrimreader.blogspot.com ( )
  nohrt4me2 | Sep 11, 2012 |
William Thornhill grew up as a fighter. Born into poverty, he learned to steal when he was ten years old. After his parents died, he became an apprentice. In seven years he would be a freeman with his own boat to ferry people across the Thames River. Before seven years were up, Mr. Middleton died and Will married his daughter, Sal. Life went downhill, but Sal was always positive, bolstering him. When he was sent to New South Wales as a thief, she accompanied him. Because Sal was a free woman, Will escaped the work crew. He worked his own fields, giving a tithe to the king, and was free except he could not leave the colony.

Grenville warms us to Thornhill’s character just in time to reveal the book’s central themes—British imperialism which extends to Thornhill and other settlers, disregard for the aboriginal culture, and the reverence the Aborigines felt toward their land.

The book is powerful with wonderful metaphors. Grenville isn’t out to please us, but to clearly paint the uneasy co-existence of the whites and the Aborigines. Violent and gritty, the book shows us xenophobia at its zenith. “Duty to King and country” comes at the expense of the natives. Honesty is power and Grenville hits this one out of the ballpark. ( )
  hollysing | Jun 25, 2012 |
My son was forced to read this for Year 11 or 12 at school, so I read it too, to share his pain.

I found it to be pretty ordinary, and don't understand what all the fuss is about this book. ( )
1 vote SunUp | Mar 12, 2012 |
William Thornhill has known nothing but a hardscrabble life in the rough parts of London in the early 1800s when he is sentenced to death for stealing precious wood. His wife, childhood love Sal, manages to have his sentence changed and they are instead extradited to a convict colony in Australia with their small son in tow. William is a harworker and Sal a very resourceful woman, and within a short few years following a difficult boat passage, William manages to obtain a pardon and put aside some savings in this land where everybody has a past they'd rather put behind them and plenty of opportunities ahead. While boating up and down a river with his employer, another ex-convinct called Blackwood, and as they take merchandise to and from Sydney and the settlers of the Hawkesbury River, Thornhill falls in love with a piece of land and starts dreaming of making it his domain. All a man need do to claim land in this place is to clear a patch of earth, plant a crop, and wait for it to grow. Though Sal dreams of nothing but of returning "home" to London, William convinces her to move their growing brood to this dream place of his where he feels certain their fortunes lay. Though Thornhill is aware that there are natives, "blacks" living hidden among the bushes and the trees, and though he's seen how some of the other colonizers deal with them—with extreme brutality in the case of one of his neighbours, Smasher Sullivan, he doesn't for a moment question that the land is his to take and that the blacks will move on to some other place. But as time goes by and he and Sal must contend with the blacks' growing presence on what he considers to be "his" hundred acres, and what starts as mere disagreements and misunderstandings between him and the natives, with plenty of amusing moments or culture clash, soon mounts to growing tension and violence.

The novel is beautifully written and the pacing excellent, but the as the impeding sense of doom grew, I reached a point near the end when I felt unable to continue. After all, we all know what the fate of the natives of Australia was, as they, like the American natives were mostly decimated, with the few survivors made to live on reserves. But Grenville's characters are multi-dimensional, and Thornhill is a complex man and worthy of our empathy, perhaps because Grenville has based the novel on the experience of one of her forefathers. Whatever the case may be, by the end of the novel, the reader feels like he is still able to draw his own conclusions, though it's quite clear the author is trying to make peace with a difficult past. Not a light read by any means, but well worth the effort. ( )
7 vote Smiler69 | Feb 23, 2012 |
“It was a sad scrabbling place, this town of Sydney. The old hands called it The Camp, and in 1806 that was pretty much still what it was: a half-formed temporary sort of place.”

London was a brutal place in the early 19th century and William Thornhill, trying to support a young family, in the boating/shipping trade, had to resort to theft, just to survive. He was caught and sentenced to die. A deal was struck and his sentence was reduced and he was transported to New South Wales, (Australia) with scores of other convicts, to live out the rest of their lives. The most interesting part of the “deal” was, he is able to bring his family along.
The rest of this intoxicating story, is how the Thornhills survive in this “alien” environment, trying to delicately coexist, along with an Aboriginal tribe.
This book is a fictionalized account of the author’s ancestor’s, as they struggled, to make a new life, in a new land.
Yes, Grenville is a female author but the first word that comes to mind, to describe her writing style is robust. Her prose is sinewy and scrappy and the narrative moves along at a nice clip. This is my first book by this author and I cannot recommend it high enough. ( )
10 vote msf59 | Jan 29, 2012 |
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