Red Koi Reviews

See what I've seen, hear what I've heard

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Posted by redkoireviews on 20/07/2006

The Secret RiverIt’s not often I find a book that really moves me. ‘The Secret River‘ by Kate Grenville is one of those few. It tells the story of a William Thornhill, a lowly waterman on the Thames in the late 1700’s who is expelled from his struggle for existence in England to another struggle for existence in the penal colony of Sydney.

Thornhill has never had aspirations much higher than survival until his eyes fall on a piece of bush on the Hawkesbury River. He becomes almost obsessed with the idea of it – his own land.

His dream is quickly brought down to earth as it becomes clear that his dream is not shared by his wife Sal, who longs for her home – England. More pointedly, the local aboriginals fail to understand Thornhills claim. Though not a violent man at heart, his obsession with ownership of this small parcel of bush takes him on a slippery slope into acts that would have shocked his London self.

The book is beautifully written. It hooks you not with a barbed plot – dense with red herrings and cliff hangers – but with characters whose lives and torments are almost palpably real. Having sailed on the Hawkesbury River as a teenager, I know how little it’s sheer cliffs and rugged bush has changed. Grenvilles vivid description of the land evokes perfectly the reality of what I’ve experienced first hand. Perhaps because of that, the passages that describe the aboriginal people and their abuse by the white settlers is all the more shocking. I’ve read about the atrocities committed by whites against blacks, but it’s always been somehow historic – a statement of fact. ‘The Secret River’ is so much more powerful because it brings you right up close to the lives, and deaths, of the people involved.

My only complaint is about the last chapter. After the more relaxed, detailed pace of everthing before it, this has a kind of hurried pace. I can just hear the editor saying “I think you’d better tie up all those loose ends”. I couldn’t help feeling like I’d already finished the book.

That aside, it’s a great read. Powerful, complex, entertaining.

My Rating: 4 Stars

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