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The Secret River - Book of the Month

by Kate Grenville

This new novel by Kate Grenville is set to become a bookgroup classic.

The story has its beginnings in London in the very early 1800s where William Thornhill, a Thames boatman, lives in grinding poverty. For the sake of his family he commits a not particularly heinous misdemeanour and is sentenced to death. That is commuted to transportation for life and William is sent to New South Wales with his wife Sal and their young family.

Once in Australia Thornhill gains his freedom and dreams of owing his own hundred acres of land – something that he can call his own. He is shown an inlet in the Hawkesbury (the ‘secret river’ of the title) and falls in love with the place immediately and this is where they settle. Sal, on the other hand, constantly dreams of going back to London with their ever-growing family.

Along the river other ex-convicts have settled. These are a motley crew who barely scrape an existence and among them is a presence that they can’t ignore. The Aborigines are like wraiths, appearing and disappearing at will. Thornhill knows he’s being watched and feels he’s being mocked and to begin with there is certainly no hostility. Will is amazed and admires the ease with which they hunt. They even do a little trade and one of the Thornhill boys plays with the Aboriginal children and watches as the elders teach them to make fire and throw a spear. But some of the other settlers are not so tolerant and horror stories about “the blacks” begin to circulate striking fear into the hearts of the settlers and soon violence erupts along the river. Then, as we have suspected all along, disaster happens and the consequences are terrible.

This is a beautifully written story that, from the beginning, because we know the history so well, the end is never going to be happy. Kate Grenville tells the story with compassion describing a harsh and beautiful landscape for which these people tragically compete.

For more about Kate Grenville read our interview with her and our review of her novel THE IDEA OF PERFECTION. See also her piece in the Guardianabout her inspiration for THE SECRET RIVER.

For more on this theme see our reviews of DANCING WITH STRANGERS
by Inga Clendinnen and ENGLISH PASSENGERS by Matthew Kneale.

Read our interview with Kate Grenville.

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