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Secret River, The by Kate Grenville

Secret River, The (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Kate Grenville

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Well-written and interesting. It was fascinating to experience the life of early European settlers in Australia and their interactions with the aborigines, it also quite depressing. ( )
  Connie-D | Jan 17, 2016 |
Although the ending was a bit of a disappointment, I really enjoyed this. ( )
  Bagpuss | Jan 17, 2016 |
William Thornhill breaks the law so he and family are transported to New South Wales [today's Australia]. The novel deals with what whites are sent there and their uneasy relationship with the natives. William claims a bit of land and he and family try to make a go of it. After a period of years he finds that Australia has changed him. His wife still speaks wistfully of Home -- England -- but to him it is becoming a distant memory.

For a long part the novel dragged and it was a chore to force myself to read on. I'm glad I finally read of William's transformation and love of this new land. The description of the massacre was powerful. The novel WAS beautifully written.

"He remembered how it had been, that first night, the fearsome strangeness of the place.....He tried to picture himself the picture he had so often thought of, the neat little house in Covent Garden, himself lf strolling out of a morning to make sure his apprentices were sweating for him and that no man was stealing from him. But he could not really remember what the air had been like, or the touch of English rain....The picture he and Sal had carried around with them and handed backwards and forwards to each other was clear enough, but it had nothing to do with him.
He was no longer the same person who thought that a little house in Swan Lane and a wherry all his own was all a man might desire. Eating the food of this country, drinking its water, breathing its air, had remade him, particle by particle."
( )
  janerawoof | Jul 3, 2015 |
A little bit of a different read for me, is it possible I've never read anything Australian before?! Feels like this is the first time. Story of William Thornhill and his struggle to survive in early 19th century London culminating in being exiled to Australia as a convict. I know so little about this area of history and found it both shocking and interesting. The brutality towards the native population seems unbelievable today yet is so perfectly played out in this story that you almost feel sorry for William the making of his terrible decisions. ( )
  aine.fin | Jun 19, 2015 |
William Thornhill grew up poor in the slums of London, but his luck seemed to changed when he obtained an apprenticeship as a Waterman on the Thames and later married his master's daughter, Sal Middleton. Life again turned hard when Sal's parents died along with all financial security. When William Thornhill was caught illegally supplementing his meagre income he was transported to Australia. Fortunately he was able to be accompanied by his wife and young son.
Life in the colony in 1806 was very harsh, but with a dream of building a life on land in the upper reaches of the Hawkesbury River, the Thornhill family battled severe conditions and the threat of aboriginal attack, to forge their new life.
Well written and entertaining. A honest telling of a difficult time. ( )
  TheWasp | Jun 14, 2015 |
The Angus and Robertson Top 100 (2006 - 2008) Book #93.
The Secret River is a historically set novel. The plot was interesting, however, not a lot really happened in the book. It wasn't difficult to read, but it is not a book that I would race to read again. ( )
  amme_mr | May 5, 2015 |
2.5 stars

It is the early 1800s and William Thornhill is a convict in England and is sent to the penal colony in Australia, where he is joined by his wife and young son. In Australia, he is able to take over some land to build a new life. Of course, the Aboriginals are already there on that land.

The premise of the book sounded interesting to me, but the execution wasn't my kind of thing at all. It is very literary and has won awards, which is appealing to some, but not necessarily my thing. I was bored through the first 2/3 of the book, but it did pick up for me in the last 1/3, once there was interaction with the Aboriginals (hence, the extra ½ star). The use of italics for dialogue also drove me a bit nuts (and the author admitted in her note that some people might not like that; see my hand go up...). I did find that note at the end interesting. ( )
  LibraryCin | May 3, 2015 |
William Thornhill became a thief just to survive and eat in London. When he finally gets caught, he is sentenced to death, but gets a reprieve and instead is sent to New South Wales where he is bound over to his wife. At the end of that period, he is emancipated and begins to build his own legacy. The reader is treated to the landscape and hardships of that period of Australian history. There is also the issue of the white man versus the black aboriginals of the area. While modern readers will probably empathize with the plight of the aboriginals, the author does treat it with authenticity for that period. Her central character shows more compassion than many of the other settlers toward them. I enjoyed this venture into early 19th century Australia in fiction. ( )
  thornton37814 | Apr 25, 2015 |
Grenville's depiction of daily life in London and unsettled South Wales is impressive, detailed, and filled with a clear appreciation for both nature and history. In fact, once the story moved to South Wales, I sometimes felt I was reading a piece of nature writing more so than a novel. This, essentially, ends up being the problem with the text. While the story is certainly realistic and detailed, the characters are mere silhouettes from history for the vast majority of the novel. Absolutely, they are believable, but they are also simply drawn, and incredibly flat considering the scope of the novel.

At the climax of the work, well into the novel, the characters come more into focus, Grenville's writing of plot and action excelling as she writes what is, fairly clearly, at the heart of the book (and perhaps the reason for the book in its entirety?). Afterward, however, the characters move back to the background, their story only important as it stands as a frontal lens for history.

Readers who want the history more than a great read will, most certainly, appreciate the book, and it certainly does give a view to a little enough discussed piece of history. That said, as a novel and as a story to explore for story and character...it's not something I'd recommend, lovely as the writing may be. ( )
  whitewavedarling | Nov 15, 2014 |
William Thornhill is sent to jail in London for thieving. He gets the opportunity to choose between a punishment of death in England or exile to Australia, so his wife Sal and their infant are soon on their way to the outback. Once there life is anything but simple. As the couple struggle to survive they are tested on every front.

Where Thornhill sees an opportunity his wife sees a lonely life in the wilderness. They decide to take their chances and begin to farm. They are soon introduced to the small community in the area and the contentious relationship between the native aboriginal people and the new English immigrants. Many misunderstandings arise because of the cultural differences between the people. The people have a hard time finding common ground because of their unique view of landownership and very different styles of celebrations.

Fear is what drives people to destroy what they don’t understand. The tragic consequences are a stain on the entire country’s history. They haunt the characters long after they become a distant memory. I loved that the story gives a voice to both sides of the issue. Many of the white people didn’t understand the harm they were doing. They were afraid and when they decided to act in fear they were bound to make a bad decision. The persecution of the aboriginal people is shown in a way that allows the reader to understand how things could have escalated so quickly.

BOTTOM LINE: The story is a powerful one. It revisits the age old question; do the ends justify the means? For me the characters were a little stale, but I have found myself thinking about different aspects of the plot since I finished it two months ago. It’s not one I’ll reread, but I think it offers a valuable glimpse into the difficult relationship between immigrants and the native people in any country. ( )
  bookworm12 | Oct 23, 2014 |
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 |
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 |
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. ( )
1 vote 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 |
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