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Washington Post Book World
Friday, June 9th, 2006
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The Secret River

by Kate Grenville

Down Under

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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