The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Although Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s best-known authors, I had not read any of her books before. She has published eight books of fiction and four books about the writing process. Her best-known works are the international best-seller The Secret River, The Idea of Perfection, The Lieutenant and Lilian’s Story and The Secret River was the book our local book group read most recently.

The Secret River is a story set in the nineteenth century and tells the story of William Thornhill and his family. William is an illiterate English bargeman and a man of quick temper but deep compassion who steals a load of wood. His sentence is commuted from death to deportation to the colony that would become Australia. What I had never thought about was that, as William was married with a child, his wife, Sal, with family had two choices: she could have stayed in England, coping with the stigma of being a single parent or travel into the unknown with her husband, Will. She chooses the latter.

When they arrive in the colony, Sal has a second child. Will is immediately assigned to Sal, effectlively as her slave. She shows him kindness and respect, despite her misgivings about their new circumstances and her homesickness for London. 

As time progresses, Will gradually realises that if he wants to make a home for his family, he must forcibly take the land from the people who came before him. Thus commences a series of disturbing and violent scenes that are most difficult to read. I do not doubt the atrocities happened, I do doubt that I need to read about it in such graphic detail. Will also has two men assigned to him as he, in his turn had been assigned to Sal. But Will’s greed and determination prevent him from treating his’slaves’ as humanely as Sal treated him.

The Secret River is a masterpiece of historical setting and of the mental, physical and emotional demands that people must endure when they are abruptly required to move from their home country to a new land.  This is an excellent book group read and a fine historical novel.

Val Penny 


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