Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of LostAngels and Wolfsangel (www.lizaperrat.com)

What we thought: a thought-provoking story which subtly raises issues on class, ownership and power.

Australian author, and Orange Fiction prize-winner, Kate Grenville wanted to know what happened to one of her English ancestors when he arrived in New South Wales, early in the 19th century.
A poverty-stricken Thames River bargeman, Thornhill’s dire circumstances lead him to commit a crime for which he is transported to colonial New South Wales with his feisty wife, Sal, for the term of his natural life. Once emancipated, he seizes this opportunity to reinvent himself by becoming a trader and landowner, staking a claim on patch of ground by the Hawkesbury River, which, unbeknown to him, is Aboriginal land.

Whilst attempting to understand and exist peacefully alongside the natives, Thornhill, working hard for small gain in a hostile environment, gains our sympathy when the natives steal his crops. At the same time the author never lets us forget that this land, which the white man has stolen, belongs to the Aboriginals.

The undercurrent of tension with the natives begins as a murmur, gradually becoming palpable, until it is clear that conflict between Thornhill’s family and the Aboriginals is inevitable. The situation builds to a horrifying climax when William Thornhill is forced to make a difficult choice; a clash between one group of people who are desperate to own land, and another group for whom the concept of ownership is entirely foreign.

The author weighs the argument deftly, presenting the reader with the plight of both blacks and whites, with no aim of resolving the problem, but weaving a fine balance of empathy for both the Aboriginal population and the white settlers.

All moral dilemmas aside, this is also simply a good story: a man trying to carve a better life for himself and his family in brutal and unforgiving conditions.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Fiction and non-fiction stories about early Australian settlers, and pioneer tales such as Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.

Avoid if you don’t like: vivid depictions of the harsh and unforgiving colonial Australia.

Ideal accompaniments: roasted goanna with honey ants.

Genre: Historical Fiction

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