cariola119, January 01, 2010
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An unforgettable and disturbing novel. Many reviewers here and elsewhere rightly note that The Secret River is about the white settlement of Australia--but it is so much more. There's a terrible irony in the fact that men like William Thornhill, a struggling London Waterman convicted of theft but transported instead of hanged, saw the "new" continent as a place where they could escape the dehumanization of class and poverty, yet they became the very monsters from which they had gladly fled. Initially, Thornhill is an empathetic character, a man just trying to do a little better for his wife and children. It's his craving for property, a tract of land to work and to call his own, that leads to his personal success--and to his personal tragedy. By putting his insatiable desire for the land ahead of his marriage, his children, his common sense, and even his conscience, Thornhill becomes the empty shell of a man, and we are left to ask whether the individual or the rigid class/wealth structure that is to blame. Is it personal greed or the effects of an environment in which possessing property is viewed as the only mark of a successful man? Just when Thornhill seems finally to have it all, we're left to ask if he really has anything at all.
Grenville does a splendid job of recreating the atmosphere of, first, Victorian London, and, later, the colonial towns and bush settlements of Australia. Her characters (at least the main ones) are complex and believable; and even the lesser characters are well drawn. There are scenes in the book that will haunt and disturb you and others that will just leave you shaking your head. Overall, an engaging novel, well worth reading.