The Secret River is at once a departure from the kind of fiction on which Australian writer Kate Grenville has built her reputation over the past two decades and the logical outcome of her career-long interest in untold stories. The novel grew out of Grenville’s participation in a march for reconciliation that prompted her to learn more about white Australians’ early dealings with the native population and about her ancestor Solomon Wiseman, a convict-settler transported to Australia in 1805. After a year of research in London and Australia, Grenville spent four years writing The Secret Riverlonger than any of her other novels. What began as a biography of her ancestor became her finest novel to date and a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. “I wanted to show the average settler was just an ordinary man,” Grenville has said in her characteristically understated manner, but The Secret River shows a great deal more than that. Her story of a man, a marriage, and a land becomes a tale of two rivers, two countries, two cultures, and, ultimately, in reviewer Jem Poster’s words, “a tragedy of mutual incomprehension.”
The Secret River begins in darkness on William Thornhill’s first night in Sydney. “There were things worse than dying: life had taught him that. Being here in New South Wales might be one of them.” His misgivings intensify as soon as Thornhill sees his first Aborigine emerging from the darkness as if from a dream, wearing “his nakedness like a cloak” and making the fully clothed Thornhill feel as “skinless as a maggot.” Following this short prefatory section, the novel loops back to the small part of London that Thornhill knows, the cramped, Dickensian east end along the Thames. Following the deaths of his parents, Thornhill is fortunate enough to be apprenticed to a kindly waterman, Mr. Middleton, whose daughter Sarah (Sal), he marries as soon as he completes his seven-year term. Weary of the gentry he had ferried for Middleton and who had seemed to him “another species,” Thornhill, now a freeman, chooses to ferry goods instead of people.
The precariousness of existence for people like the Thornhills becomes clear when Middleton dies: “His business had been good, his life cautiously prosperous. But as soon as he was gone it fell into pieces with amazing speed,” taking Thornhill and Sal down as well. Losing their home, furnishings, and steady income, they soon feel the “mix of fear and need.” Caught stealing a few pieces of expensive wood he is tried in a court described as “a bear-pit” and sentenced to death. When a Captain Watson, at Sal’s request, writes on his behalf, Thornhill is pardoned for his crime “on condition of his being transported to the Eastern Part of New South Wales for the term of his sentence, viz., for and during the term of his Natural Life.”
Skipping over the nine-month voyage, part 2 returns The Secret River to where it began, with Thornhill’s arrival in “this sad scrabbling place, this town of Sydney. The old hands called it The Camp,” and in 1806, eighteen years after its initial settlement by the British, “that was pretty much still what it was: a half-formed temporary sort of place.” To Thornhill and Sal, who had assumed all the world was like London, Australia is a shock, but it is also an opportunityfor Sal, to earn their way back to England, for Thornhill, to make a new life for himself and his growing family. If he works for a year, he can receive his “ticket of leave” and then a pardon. “A little luck, a deal of hard work: with those, nothing could stop them.” At first this means that nothing could stop them from “making their pile” and returning to London. However with each new day Sal marks off and with each new child, London grows more distant, less a place to which to return than a fading story. Increasingly, Thornhill stakes his future on the secret river, “this Hawkesbury that everyone spoke about but few had seen. This was a place out of a dream, a fierce landscape of chasms and glowering cliffs and a vast unpredictable sky. Everywhere was the same but everywhere was different. Thornhill felt his eyes wide open, straining to find something they could understand.” Thornhill will never fully understand the land, any more than he will ever fully master it, but he soon comes to understand the appeal of the Hawkesbury in general and of “my place. Thornhill’s place” in particular:Now he understood, as he had not before, why Blackwood’s mouth had always grown soft when he pointed his boat up the river and coiled his way deep into the land. The Hawkesbury was the one place where no man could set himself up as better than his neighbour. They were all emancipists in that private valley. There, and only there, a man did not have to drag his stinking past behind him like a dead dog.
The presence of the Aborigines complicates Thornhill’s dream of the river as refuge from the inferiority he is made to feel in Sydney, as in London. Their presence challenges far more than Thornhill’s claim to his one hundred acres; it challenges the entire socioeconomic system that Thornhill had come to see, like London itself, as both natural and universal. He judges the lifestyle of the Aborigines:It was true the blacks made no fields or fences, and built no houses worth the name, roaming around with no thought for the morrow. It was true that they did not even know enough to cover their nakedness, but sat with their bare arses on the dirt like dogs. In all these ways they were nothing but savages. On the other hand, they did not seem to have to work to come by the little they needed. They spent time every day filling their dishes and catching the creatures that hung from their belts. But afterward they seemed to have plenty of time left for sitting by their fires talking and laughing and stroking the chubby limbs of their babies.
He compares their situation to that of the white settlers:By contrast, the Thornhill household was up with the sun, hacking at the weeds around the corn, lugging water, chopping away at the forest that hemmed them in. Only when the sun slipped down behind the ridge did they take their ease, and by then no one seemed to feel much like fun and games. Certainly no one seemed to have energy to spare for making a baby laugh.
Thornhill cannot help but admire the Aborigines’ ways: “the blacks were farmers no less than the white men were. But they did not bother to build a fence to keep animals from getting out. Instead they created a tasty patch to lure them in. Either way, it meant fresh meat for dinner.” He also notices the advantages that the Aborigines enjoy: They spent a little time each day on their business, but the rest was their own to enjoy. . . . 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.
William Thornhill is no Thomas Blackwood, another transported Londoner who employs Thornhill and introduces him to the Hawkesbury but then gives up his business to live with the natives. Neither is Thornhill like the worst of his kind, Smasher Sullivan and Sagitty Birtels, whose gruesome deaths evoke less a sense of horror than of violent justice. The settlers can only see the natives’ taking whatever is available (the settlers’ shovels and corn, for example) as thefts of goods measured in terms of labor, payment, profit, and property rights--measures entirely foreign to the natives. As “thefts” become “attacks,” the novel moves inexorably toward its heart-of-darkness climax. Fear of the natives (in effect fear of the unknown) combines in Thornhill’s mind with fear of losing the land and of losing Sal. “Get rid of the blacks and she’ll stay.” Thus Thornhill participates in Smasher’s massacre of the natives, which Grenville renders from Thornhill’s point of view and in hallucinatory slow motion.
Immediately following the massacre the novel again leaps, this time years ahead. Once free of the threat posed by the Aborigines, Thornhill prospers, the cost of that freedom secreted in misleading newspaper stories. Thornhill expands his farm, has an imposing house built, his portrait painted. Nothing, however, works out quite as planned. The house seems architecturally unbalanced; Sal’s carefully planned, as well as walled, garden does not prosper; the portraits, rather than concealing his past and confirming his status as gentleman farmer, seem to mock him, exposing his humble, to some disreputable, origins. Long Jack, last of the locals, is given a small plot on Thornhill’s estate but refuses either to be grateful or to leave; one of Thornhill’s sons, however, does leave, to stay with Blackwood, quietly repudiating all his father had achieved and the means he employed. Surveying his lands at novel’s end, Thornhill does not feel proud; he feels empty, having become someone other than what he was, but someone who is both better and worse.
The Secret River is nearly overwhelmed by the author’s good intentions in its final pages, where the novel becomes more didactic and the deceptively simple yet hauntingly poetic style of the previous three hundred pages less evident--the verbal equivalent of the novel’s “melancholy landscape,” of the illiterate Thornhill’s unarticulated “mix of fear and need,” and most especially of the Aborigines themselves, always felt yet infrequently seen, rarely heard, even more rarely understood, their “being” utterly foreign to settlers obsessed with “becoming.” “One of the problems with trying to understand what happened between black and white in the early days of settlement,” Grenville notes in a review for The Guardian of fellow Australian Thomas Kenneally’s The Commonwealth of Thieves: The Story of the Founding of Australia (2006),is that all the sources are from the newcomers’ point of view. We see the actions of the Aboriginal people only through a European consciousness. Seen that way, their actions often seemed to make no sense, but Kenneally goes some way toward redressing this imbalance. Without claiming to have full understanding, he suggests alternative interpretations.
Grenville does as well.
The problem with revisionist history, including the kind found in novels such as The Secret River and films such as Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), is it generally comes too late to matter, casting its backward glance but leaving the present much as it is. As the at times hostile local reaction to The Secret River suggests, the situation is different in Australia, where Aboriginal groups continue to press their land claims despite a High Court ruling that makes it nearly impossible for them to satisfy the Court’s demand that they prove two hundred years of continuous ownership: the two hundred years between Thornhill’s arrival in Australia and the novel’s publication. Although about the past, The Secret River addresses the present and as such may well prove just as socially and politically useful as it is aesthetically satisfying--no small accomplishment at a time when so many historical novels are escapist and when so many novels set in the present are so “self”-centered and inconsequential.