Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

This was a present, and I doubt I would have come to it independently, so I'm grateful to the giver for introducing me to a rewarding, if depressing, book. Grenville's story begins, after an Australian preview, with the childhood, apprenticeship and marriage of William Thornhill in impoverished nineteenth-century Borough. Thornhill is initially successful, becomes a boatman on the Thames and marries his master's daughter Sal. But through bad luck he loses his own boat and must find work as a lighterman. Lightermen do not earn enough to support a family, but the opportunities for petty theft are many, and Will and Sal make do for a while. But Will tries one job too many, and is caught in the fog stealing timber; his brother Rob dies during the ensuing scuffle leading to Will's arrest. I had rather taken to simple Rob and was sorry to see him go over the side of the boat. Will is sentenced to death, but his sentence is commuted to transportation, and his wife and child - children, by the end of the voyage - go with him to Australia.

At first, things go relatively well. William works his sentence and gains parole; Sal sets up a makeshift pub in their hut in Sydney. Will gets work as a boatman with Blackwood, who travels up the Hawkesbury River to transport goods to and from the settler farmers. On one of these journeys Will falls for a piece of land, a headland the same shape as his thumb, and, besotted with colonial lust, persuades Sal to move the family there. Once there, they live in an uneasy truce with the original residents for a while, but eventually are unable to take the advice of Blackwood to "give a little, take a little" with the Aborigines, leading to greater tension and, in the end, an act of unspeakable violence. Thornhill's subsequent bourgeois comfort is dearly bought.

Grenville's style is neutral, letting Thornill's thoughts and actions speak for themselves. The depiction of Thornhill's gradual descent into criminal or depraved activity, first in London and then in Australia, is skilfully handled. Thornhill is always human, his reactions to his circumstances often complex and ambiguous; he grows to value the Aborigines as people, to recognise their status and power, but simultaneously resents and despises them as a group. While there are obvious lessons to be learned from this colonialist's story, the book is not a moral treatise; the characterisation is strong and realistic, from the robust Sal to the enigmatic Blackwood, and Grenville has a deft touch with incidental characters that makes them real and memorable. The book is, however, immensely sad; the circumstances of Thornhill's life are difficult in the first place, his few opportunities turn bad through ill luck and bad judgement, and all parties pay a dreadful price for his eventual establishment as a landowner. Probably best read on a sunny day when things are going fairly well, or as a penitential act when enjoying a luxurious holiday.

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