REVIEW: The Secret River by Kate Grenville

This review series will concentrate on the books I read specifically for my writing. These are the books I dip into to check writerly things (like tone, pace, dialogue, character and how long exactly an opening scene should be) or are reference books that I’ve found useful and return to again and again.

The Secret River

The Secret River follows the journey of William Thornhill and his family from the slums of London to the frontier conflict of the Hawkesbury. First published more than ten years ago, it is a story about love, class and race and questions what white Australia means when it uses the term ‘settle’. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Here’s why:

History

I spent much of my formative teenage years in Sydney and did my undergraduate degree in Australian history there. Sydney and early colonial history is in my blood. This book so perfectly captures for me the way I feel about that early time of white history and made plain all the ways I’ve struggled with the conflict of that time too. It was John Howard’s culture wars, after all.

But besides that, it is a beautifully drawn meditation on the land of Sydney, the harbour and the Hawkesbury from the early 1800s. When I lived in Sydney I was obsessed with how ancient the landscape and the weather were. I’d stand on a hill at the University of Western Sydney (where I did my degree) and watch the storms roll over the Blue Mountains and feel like I was timeless – that people for a million years had stood there and watched those storms. Or I’d be on the ferry to Manly (where I lived – yes, that was a lot of travel!) and the sea would rise up between the Heads, transforming the sedate ferry into a rolling, bobbing cork and I’d think about those ships sailing in, or the Eora people sheltering against the weather along the shore. It all seemed so close I could touch it. I felt part of it.

Character

Honestly, I cannot overstate the depth and gentle unfurling of William Thornhill. Grenville deftly manoeuvres us into a firm belief in Thornhill’s  value as a man. He loves his wife and children, he yearns for a home and a life we can identify with, he pulls himself out of the grinding poverty of his birth against the odds.

His early interactions with Aboriginal people are, although clearly racist, at least of-the-time ordinary. The shift in Thornhill is only realised in hindsight when he has gone beyond the point of no return and we too are left wondering at what point he became a man not to be liked, not to be trusted. It is by inches that this happens, moment upon moment of decisions and circumstance. If my characters have even half of this effect upon readers I will be a happy, happy person.

Of course there are other characters who are also beautifully drawn but it is through Thornhill that we take this journey and the way the novel is written with almost no dialogue means were are stuck close to him at all times. It is a masterclass in close point of view.

Words

Or, as my Literature students (who I teach this novel to) should say, ‘diction’. I fell in love with this book all over again one day in class when I was modelling a close reading and got to the word ‘sough’. It is on the first page, at the end of the second paragraph and I can’t believe I never noticed it before. I had to look it up (it means a moaning, whistling, or rushing sound as made by the wind in the trees or the sea) and it is now officially my favourite word. Grenville’s sentence is so beautifully perfect too:

Through the doorway of the hut he could feel the night, huge and damp, flowing in and bringing with it the sounds of its own life: tickings and creakings, small private rustlings, and beyond that the soughing of the forest, mile after mile.

Look out for that word in my novel, once I find the most perfect place for it…

Of course, Grenville’s diction is so rich I go back to it over and over to find new words or ideas to describe something.

Representation of Aboriginal people and culture

I am somewhat unqualified to comment on this too much but for my ear, Grenville’s representation of the Darug (the people of the Hawkesbury) people is beautiful. She keeps them so close to the land and the environment with phrases like:

Something about the way their skins were shadows among the shadows of the trees made it hard to see them straight (p. 195).

Or:

Each held a few spears, the lengths of wood shifting like insects’ feelers (p. 195).

Or:

His body was sinewy with muscle, turning into the dance like a fish in a current. The pounding of his feet seemed the pulse of the earth itself. When he began to sing, he threw the song up into the air, its long crooked line the sound of the blood in the veins of the place (p. 244).

I could go on…

So, have I convinced you?

If you read it years ago, go back and rediscover it. If you’ve only seen the ABC production of it, read the book. If you know it well, dip back into it. You won’t be disappointed.

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