Blog Archives

The Secret River by Kate Grenville [Book Review]

The Secret RiverBy coincidence I started reading Kate Grenville’s story of a fictional family who were early settlers in Australia, around the same time that I was researching a real life family who left Ireland to make a new life in Australia.

Both families were forced into travelling the thousands of miles to the new world. Grenville’s patriarch was a convict, transported for life for stealing wood; mine was a farmer fleeing from the Irish potato famine.

Though I suspect both the fictional and the real-life families suffered similar difficulties with an unfamiliar climate and terrain, I don’t know whether ‘my’ family experienced the same conflicts with the indigenous population as the convict William Thornhill does when he tries to colonise some land.

Thornhill was born in London into a life of poverty.  He’s not an inherently wicked man  but turns to petty crime because it offers an opportunity to keep body and soul alive. Unfortunately he gets caught and is sentenced to death. Transportation is his escape from the gallows.

With his wife Sal and their children he arrives in New South Wales. Through hard work he is able to earn his freedom and to start afresh. He discovers a plot of land in an inlet of the Hawkesbury River, that he is determined to own and cultivate.

In The Secret River, Grenville shows the effect of a burning desire for ownership and how it changes an otherwise decent, hard working and sensitive man.

Cultivation of the new land is a hard task but what keeps Sal going is the belief that one day they will have enough money to return to her beloved London. But the land and the river have taken grip of William. It’s the one time in his life that he has something that is his. Being a landowner represents dignity and status, and he wants to keep it even if that means conflict with the woman he loves.

… nothing would console him for the loss of that point of land the shape of his thumb. For the light in the mornings, slanting in through the trees. For the radiant cliffs in the sunset and the simple blue of the sky. For the feeling of striding out over ground that was his own. For knowing he was a king, as he would only ever be king in that place.

But he has not reckoned that there is another group who equally believe the land they are the rightful owners of this plot of land.

The mysterious, dark-skinned people who appear and disappear from the forests, seem seem to him no more than naked savages.  Other ex- convicts up river have found a way to accommodate themselves with the Aborigines but not William. He is angered when they steal his crops and incensed to find his son playing with their children. This to him feels like a betrayal.

When violence between Aborigines and the white settlers erupts further along the river, William is shown a way to protect his own family and everything he has worked for in Australia.  But it requires him to accept bloodshed and violence.  It’s hard to read this part of the novel without a sense of dread about the decision William has to make because it’s unlikely to have a happy outcome.

This is a novel about two attitudes to the land (the settlers and the Aborigines) but also about two rivers.

Grenville shows the Thames as a harsh and unforgiving, environment against which William contends when he plies his trade as a boatman. Yet he loves the river:

After a time the mud-choked water and the ships it carried, thick on its back like fleas on a dog, became nothing more than a big room of which every corner was known. He came to love that wide pale light around him out on the river, the falling away of insignificant things in the face of the great radiance of the sky. He would rest on the oars at Hungerford Reach, where the tide could be relied on to sweep him around, and stare along the water at the way the light wrapped itself around every object.

Even when he’s soaked through and his face is reddened and swollen by the cold and rain, he accepts his condition because “it was as pointless to complain about the weather as it was to complain that he had been born … in a dank, stuffy room rather than … with a silver spoon waiting to have his name engraved on it.”

The Hawkesbury River  fires William’s imagination even more than the Thames. Until he saw the sparkle and dance of light on the water, the way the cliffs tumble into the river through snaking mangroves and the sound of wind rustling through skinny, grey-green trees, he had never realised that a man could fall in love with the land. Or that he could become a different man entirely.

This sky, those cliffs, that river were no longer the means by which he might return to some other place. This was where he was; not just in body but in soul as well.

A man’s heart was a deep pocket he might turn out and be amazed at what he found there.

The is a well-paced novel in the way Grenville shows an escalation of the conflict between Aborigines and some of the white settlers and the conflict within William as he faces his moral dilemma.

Some reviewers have commented that they would have preferred The Secret River to more morally ambiguous. Grenville, they thought, over simplified the portrayal of the  attitudes of the settlers to the Aborigines. Actually I thought her exploration of how people are brought to act against their principles and values,  was far more nuanced than they gave her credit for.

It seems this novel, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006, and was a Booker prize nominee, is the first in a trilogy. I wonder whether the next two titles will have the same level of tension.

 

History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey [Bookerprize]

NedKellyUntil I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, I knew only three things about its protagonist Ned Kelly:

  1. He was an outlaw in Australia
  2. He was hanged for his crimes
  3. In his final shootout he wore a helmet made from iron with slits for his eyes

Carey’s novel takes us way beyond those headline facts and into the mind of the man whose first encounter with the law happened when he was just thirteen years old and he was charged with the assault and robbery of a Chinese pig and fowl trader. By the time Ned Kelly was 25 he had progressed to cattle thieving, bank robberies and murder.  How this child of a dirt-poor Irish immigrant family became one of the most wanted men in Australia and the stuff of legends is the premise of True History of the Kelly Gang.

Based partly on historical documents including the Jerilderie Letter written by Kelly to a fellow outlaw,  the novel begins with a 12-year-old boy forced to grow up quickly when his father dies. As head of the family, Ned is fiercely protective of his mother and siblings, putting his heart and soul into building fences around their farm in Victoria and clearing the land to protect crops and livestock.  Manoeuvred by his mother to become an apprentice to the infamous bushranger Harry Power, Ned is drawn increasingly into a life of crime. He fights with his mother’s suitors and the police, and when he shoots a  treacherous police officer in self-defense, Ned is forced to flee into the wild bush country. With his younger brother and two friends he commits audacious crimes, all the while gaining widespread support from poor oppressed farmers and remaining one step ahead of the forces of law and order.

True History of the Kelly Gang is an imaginative reconstruction of Ned Kelly’s life story in his own words. Dedicated to the baby daughter he has never seen, Kelly wants to set the record straight. He promises her at the beginning that his history “will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false” and the word ‘True’ in the title further seeks to persuade us that this is an definitive and authoritative account of his life and of the injustices suffered by the Irish in Australia.

He repeatedly represents himself as a person who was pushed into the life of an outlaw by forces beyond his control. “What choice did I have?” he asks, when he kills the constable who heads the local police station. At other times he reflects on how he has been betrayed by the dishonesty of others. He operates to a code of ethics that will not let him see his brother imprisoned for an act that he Ned committed, and that drives him to rob banks to raise money for the release of his mother from what he considers an unlawful imprisonment. All of this is in strong contrast to the lack of princples he witness among the police, judges and fellow settlers.

All of this is rendered in a style that is striking. Carey’s narrative has a directness and immediacy of tone that makes it hard to resist Kelly’s portrait of himself as a man who had the stuffing knocked out of him  as a child. Coming out of a stint of hard labour in prison he reflects:

I were 17 yr old when I came out of prison 6ft 2in. broad of shoulder my hands as hard as the hammers we had swung inside the walls of Beecworth Goal. I had a mighty beard and was a child no more although in truth I do not know what childhood or youth I ever had. What remained if any were finally taken away inside that goal boiled off me like fat and marrow is rendered within the tallow pot.

The raggedness of this style of writing with its lack of punctuation and free flow from one thought to another took me a little time to get used to but once any initial reservations were overcome, I got swept along. Kelly may have lacked a formal education but he knows how to tell a story and to describe the environment in which he lives and hides. Here are a few examples I picked out:

“Many is the night I have sat by the roaring river the rain never ending them logs so green bubbling and spitting blazing in a rage no rain can staunch.” 

“The clouds was light but queerly yellow on their edges as they moved across the ageless constellations.” 

“Curtains of bark hung from the trunks like shredded skin”

These moments together with flashes of humour and reflections on the Irish experience were welcome contrasts to the torrent of detail about cattle thieving, double crossing, run-ins with the law and shoot-outs. Ned Kelly seems to have perfect recall of every stage of his life and every conversation and to want to tell us about every single detail. I got a bit tired of this three quarters of the way through. Though I did enjoy it, less would certainly have more with this book.

Footnotes

About this book: True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey was first published in 2000 by the University of Queensland Press. It won the Booker Prize in 2001. My copy is a paperback published by Mackays of Chatham.

About the author: Born in Australia in 1943, Peter Carey is the author of six previous novels and a collection of stories. He won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda; his other honors include the Commonwealth Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. He became only the second author to win the Booker Prize twice.

Why I read this book: it’s one of the few remaining books on my Booker Prize project. I included it in my 20booksofsummer project for 2017.

%d bloggers like this: