The Secret River
by Kate Grenville
A review by Ron Charles
The most remarkable quality of Kate Grenville's new novel is the way it conveys
the enormous tragedy of Australia's founding through the moral compromises of
a single ordinary man. The Secret River reminds us that national history
may be recorded as a succession of larger-than-life leaders and battles, but in
fact a country arises from the accretion of personal dreams, private sacrifices
and, often, hidden acts of cruelty.
The special power of this novel took me off guard because several years ago
Grenville wrote one of my favorite romantic comedies, The
Idea of Perfection, which won the Orange Prize. Now she's earned the Commonwealth
Prize for The Secret River, and though it betrays none of her comic zest,
that's just a testament to her range. In this tragic story of colonization,
everyone suffers. The aborigines, of course, are decimated. But what's harder
to show is the strangling of conscience in those who triumph. That aspect allows
The Secret River to speak to our country as clearly and profoundly as
it speaks to hers.
The novel opens in late 18th-century London. Young William Thornhill has a
cruel sense of how common he is in the vast machinery of the city that chews
up his parents and leaves him an orphan. But he's exceptionally strong and determined;
he gets an apprenticeship as a waterman (rowing a kind of river-taxi), falls
in love with a good woman and begins to imagine that his life won't be a wretched
struggle after all.
Grenville knows just how to build this meager prosperity so that we can't help
but swell with hope for William's future even as threats mount. Through a series
of small, frighteningly plausible misfortunes, William and his wife, Sal, lose
everything and turn to theft to survive. Soon after that, just as inevitably,
William is arrested and sentenced to death. But Sal, unwilling to accept early
widowhood, works the legal system as best she can and gets William and his family
exiled to the penal colony of New South Wales.
This lengthy introduction -- besides being harrowing and tremendously entertaining
-- sets the foundation for the main story about the early settlement of the
land Down Under by Britain's criminal refuse. When the Thornhills are finally
dumped in Sydney, after a nine-month voyage in dark, separate quarters, they
have nothing to call their own. But once again, their industrious natures pay
off, and they slowly begin to attain some stability, so much so that William
lays claim to 100 acres up the river. Sal agrees to give it a try for five years,
but she marks the weeks off one by one on the trunk of a tree, a typically insightful
detail about the way conflicting aspirations can develop between a loving husband
and wife, "a space of silence" that comes between them "like
a body of water."
The problem, of course, is that this is not empty land. There are aborigines
living here, even if their way of life makes it difficult for William to understand
their sense of belonging. Most of his white neighbors are ignorant, violent
men who treat the aborigines as sex slaves or vermin, but William is too decent
and too afraid to strike out at them in the recommended ways. Still, after so
many years at the bottom of the social scale, he's quickly intoxicated by the
idea of being superior.
One of the most haunting aspects of this novel is Grenville's portrayal of
the aborigines, who appear here as William sees them: alien and intimidating.
They move too quietly, too smoothly. They're naked with no sense of self-consciousness.
They fade in and out of the forest unseen, and yet they don't seem to notice
him unless they want to. In the most unnerving moment, William realizes that
these apparently primitive people live in a state of leisure that he's never
felt -- despite his constant labor. "They were like gentry," he thinks.
"They spent a little time each day on their business, but the rest was
their own to enjoy. The difference was that in their universe there was no call
for another class of folk who stood waiting up to their thighs in river-water
for them to finish their chat so they could be taken to their play or their
ladyfriend. In the world of these naked savages, it seemed everyone was gentry."
Every new progression of William's prosperity brings him closer to open conflict
with these people. As the tension builds, he and his wife realize that their
"hut had become a compressed cube of fear." All around them swirl
stories of atrocities committed by the aborigines and the settlers. William
and Sal pretend they can ignore these troubles, but in a devastating finale,
William must finally choose between his long cherished dream of success and
his sense of himself as a decent human being. Grenville's powerful telling of
this story is so moving, so exciting, that you're barely aware of how heavy
and profound its meaning is until you reach the end in a moment of stunned sadness.
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