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BOOK LOVE: The Secret River by Kate Grenville

In 1806 William Thornhill, a man of quick temper and deep feelings, is transported from the slums of London to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. With his wife Sal and their children he arrives in a harsh land he cannot understand.But the colony can turn a convict into a free man. 

Eight years later Thornhill sails up the Hawkesbury to claim a hundred acres for himself.Aboriginal people already live on that river. And other recent arrivals—Thomas Blackwood, Smasher Sullivan and Mrs Herring—are finding their own ways to respond to them.

Thornhill, a man neither better nor worse than most, soon has to make the most difficult choice of his life.

Inspired by research into her own family history, Kate Grenville vividly creates the reality of settler life, its longings, dangers and dilemmas. The Secret River is a brilliantly written book, a groundbreaking story about identity, belonging and ownership.

 

Whenever I’m in London I am always captivated by the sense that I am walking through history, that each grandiose building or cobbled alleyway holds a host of hidden stories – some completely lost, others glimpsed through tiny carvings, or street names, or, if you’re really lucky, commemorative plaques. So I loved reading long-ago London brought back to life so vividly. The book is also a stark reminder of the timeless horrors of being poor, and the desperation that often led the destitute to lives of crime. William Thornhill and his family came alive to me from the first page to the last. Kate Grenville absolutely inhabits these characters, and makes it look effortless – a master’s trick, which actually belies an incredible amount of hard work (see also my review of Searching for the Secret River).

Once the story moved to Australia, Grenville’s writing adjusts seamlessly. The story made my senses come alive to the descriptions of the Australian bush. Once Grenville moves on to describing the settlers’ contact with the local Indigenous people, the simple scenes and actions of the characters are pared back to allow the reader to experience for themselves the fear and suspicion, the miscommunications, and the resulting horrors. Thornhill’s thoughts and decisions were frustrating, at times horrifying, but believable. It might be a fictional story but it points to a number of confronting truths.

 

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