By 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.
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.