Looking inland, where gusts of wind scraped at the water, Thornhill strained to find that secret river. -From The Secret River, page 100-
Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River was short listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and won the 2006 Commonwealth Prize. Once you’ve read this harrowing and gorgeously constructed story, you will understand why.
Set in the early part of the nineteenth century, the novel tells the story of William Thornhill - a boy born into poverty along London’s Thames River who learns to steal early on to ensure his survival. Illiterate and quick to anger, William must learn to sustain himself in the face of hunger and cold. He finds his strength as a waterman, paddling hard against the unforgiving waters of the Thames, and turns away from towering spaces of Christ Church.
It was a place with no charity in its grey stones for a boy with the seat out of his britches.
He could not understand any of it, knew only that God was as foreign as a fish. -From The Secret River, page 10-
Then one day, Will gets caught stealing lumber. After a short trial, he is found guilty and sent to a penal colony (along with his young wife Sal and their infant son) in New South Wales. This new land is as beautiful as it is foreign.
For every one of the years of his life, this bay had been here, filling its shape in the land. He had laboured like a mole, head down, in the darkness and dirt of London, and all the time this tree shifting its leathery leaves above him had been quietly breathing, quietly growing. -From The Secret River, page 80-
For William, the vast and unsettled landscape of New South Wales becomes a place where he believes his dreams may grow.
A chaos opened up inside of him, a confusion of wanting. No one had ever spoken to him of how a man might fall in love with a piece of ground. No one had ever spoken of how there could be this teasing sparkle and dance of light among the trees, this calm clean space that invited feet to enter it. -From The Secret River, page 106-
As Will and his ever increasing family begin to scrape out a space of their own along the secret river, there seems to be only one thing standing between Will and his dreams: the native people.
Grenville shows the wide gap between English and Aboriginal cultures…and the tremendous misunderstanding fueled by an inability to adequately communicate. Her prose is magnificent as she describes the land of Australia and gradually builds the tension between the characters, before bringing the novel to its inevitable and devastating conclusion. I was completely absorbed by this historical piece of work which is evocative, poetic and pulsing with the life of a time far in the past. It is a novel which explores the moral wilderness of a man in parallel with the physical wilderness of a new country. It is a story about choices, dreams and sacrifice. A pioneer tale which translates well in today’s environment of cultural divides and racial differences, The Secret River is a must read.