The The Secret River is at once a beautiful and lyrical portrait of a marriage and a family, and also a history of a time of change, power and enormous wrongs. It portrays an unyielding clash of cultures–perhaps one Americans don’t think of often–the conflict between the English and the Aborigines during the early settlement of Australia.
It covers the lives of the Thornhill family as they are transported from London to the penal colony in New South Wales, Australia, in the early 1800s. The story begins in London with its filth, stench and desperation. The main characters are first reprieved from certain death by hanging for what seem like astonishingly small crimes. Then, if they survive the nine-month sea voyage to New South Wales, they have to adapt to the new world with its reversed seasons, harsh heat and unfriendly wildlife. Many don’t adapt and give up or take to drink. Those who do survive see the forested land outside mud-streeted Sydney either as an enemy or as an opportunity. As William Thornhill plies his transportation business up and down the Hawkesbury River near Sydney, he develops a lust for the land. None of the convicts could have aspired to be landowners at home in England, but here is a vast and seemingly empty landscape and William Thornhill sees himself as a farmer. Officially the convicts are not allowed to clear the land around the river and start farming it, but Sydney needs the food, so the Governor turns a blind eye. This is a story that is at once sad and triumphant as it becomes clear that if the English convicts use the land to find freedom and prosper, then the aborigines must lose the land and in many cases their lives. But this is not a simple blaming tale. An ironically named minor character, Loveday, sums it up for all of the convicts, “”We must grasp the nettle, painful though it may be, or else abandon the place to the treacherous savages and return to our former lives.’ There was a silence, in which they all thought of their former lives.” (Page 298). Their lives are so much better as farmers in New South Wales that they are willing to go against their own consciences and perhaps commit brutal acts to get the land.
William Thornhill craves the land, but his wife, Sal wants to stay in Sydney and dreams of returning to London. They were childhood friends and have a love so deep that she chose to be transported with him, rather than stay in London alone with their first son (although her life in London without a husband to help support her would probably have been terrible). But Sal is terrified of the Australian bush and the aborigines who are constantly rumored to be conducting “outrages and depredations.” It speaks to her deep love that she is willing to move their five children to the bush with him, but she gives him five years and makes marks on a tree to count the days.
The Secret River is the first book in trilogy. The story continues in The Lieutenant (2008) and Sarah Thornhill (2011). It was nominated for numerous awards and was a finalist for the Man Booker prize and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2006. Kate Grenville based the Thornhills loosely on her own ancestors.
This is wonderful historical fiction, and also a moving and beautifully written family saga. I recommend it for readers of books like Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks, another moving and character-driven historical novel that is a fictionalized account of real events.
Check the WRL catalog for The Secret River.