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The Secret River

15 March 07 words: James Walker
Thornhill falls in love with Sal, the only surviving daughter of a waterman who is one notch up the social scale to him

Australian born author Kate Grenville requires little introduction. As well as receiving various state and national awards her sixth novel The Idea of Perfection (1999) won the prestigious Orange Prize, Britain's most valuable literary award, before becoming a long-running best-seller. Her most recent novel, The Secret River, was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and is a powerful historical portrait of the conflict between convicts and Aborigines in Australia.

The novel is split into six parts and predominantly pieces together the transformations in the life of William Thornhill, born in 1777 into Dickensian London. Thornhill, like many of this period, is born into absolute poverty and anonymity. His name is commonplace and an early indication into his lack of status and individuality. Theft becomes a natural means of survival and occasionally to comical effect, such as when one member of his group steals a single shoe and optimistically declares he will sell it to a man with one leg.

Thornhill falls in love with Sal, the only surviving daughter of a waterman who is one notch up the social scale to him. Together they find a comfortable middle ground and compliment each other. This is a theme which runs throughout the book with Sal the cultured and rational one bringing ‘sweetness and light’ into his life as he battles through the rugged public sphere, a perfect example of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies.

Their partnership gives a romantic dimension to the book and is written with subtlety and innocence, perfectly evoking the period in the eyes of the reader ‘he marvelled at her efficient fingers, doing the edges of the white squares with tiny deft movements too quick to be seen’ or ‘she would peel a tangerine and feed him the segments slippery from her own warm mouth, and when they had done all the things with tangerines and mouths that could be done, and the candle had snuffed itself out in a pool of tallow, they lay together and told each other stories.’ Given that today’s notions of beauty and romance have more to do with fake plastic breasts and a shallow consumerism, this language, the silence between two people, is a refreshing change. Yes, I’m a prude and bloody proud of it.

Thornhill undertakes a seven year apprentice to become a waterman which is the perfect profession for an illiterate uneducated man. He works every hour God sends but even then this is not enough. When the Thames freezes over he has no work, which means no food or heat for his ever expanding family which forces him to steal. Inevitably he is caught and imprisoned and narrowly misses ‘dancing in the air’ thanks to the determination and perseverance of Sal. Escaping with a pardon he is exiled to Australia and placed under his wife’s jurisdiction. This of course is far more fortunate than the plight of his fellow convicts who would be assigned to a settler on arrival and effectively become a life long slave with no rights.

What should have been penance effectively becomes a reward as they have the freedom of the land to build and live in relative freedom. But this comes at the expense of the aborigines whom are deemed as inferior savages. Obsessed with owning 100 acres and finally achieving some social status it doesn’t take Thornhill long to adapt the attitude of an imperialist, treating the natives as sub-human, forgetting what it is like to live in poverty. Here begins a series of contrasts and compromises, not only with the aborigines but with his beloved Sal, who is homesick and doesn’t share his dream. The book slowly veers towards a depressing climax but it is hard to work out where and when this will take place and for whom.

The book is the product of Glenville’s search into her own family’s history. Her ancestors’ lives in London were relatively easy to trace but their settlement on Hawkesbury River required more imagination on her part, probably because this part of history was conveniently undocumented. Perhaps because of this she allows the settlers to react in different ways to their new found environment, thereby offering the reader all possibilities and perspectives without ever becoming morally didactic. To resist this temptation, especially with the foresight of retrospective analysis, enables the novel to retain its historical context and keep the reader engaged. Indeed, Thornhill alternates between hero and villain throughout creating an ambiguous relationship with the reader although I must confess, given the context, he is someone whom I liked.

The River is a constant image throughout the book conveying so many different things, representing his livelihood, the place where he commits his crime, the thing that takes him to his new life. It is used to describe his and Sal’s relationship ‘the two streams of words rushed together like a sea meeting a river, pouring over each other hard and muddled’ whilst explaining new beginnings ‘London, that place of hard stone and cobbles, was becoming just another story, its exact shape gone fluid.’ These images are helped by Glenville’s effortlessly beautiful prose. For example she uses italics to denote speech, thereby allowing the narrative to flow more smoothly. The effect of this is that it cleverly conceals technical devices allowing the reader to achieve verisimilitude with the story, forgetting that they are reading. When the impending disaster comes it has a greater emotional impact.

Vital Statistics
Canongate
PP: 349
£7.99
ISBN 1 84195 828 X

Canongate website
Kate Grenville website
James Walker website

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