Observer review: The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Orange Prize-winner Kate Grenville presents a powerful portrait of the conflict between convicts and Aborigines in The Secret River, says Geraldine Bedell

The Secret River
by Kate Grenville
Canongate £12.99, pp352

Following The Idea of Perfection was always going to be a tough call. Five years on from her Orange Prize-winning bestseller about middle-aged love in the Outback, Kate Grenville has turned to something quite different: historical fiction and a story about convict settlement.

This is a narrative whose outlines we know already: convicts transported to Sydney, eventually pardoned, encouraged to settle what seemed to be an empty continent. They didn't understand, and wouldn't have cared, that the land they were occupying was sacred to the mysterious, dark-skinned people who appeared and disappeared from the forests and seemed to them no more than naked savages.

The William Thornhill born in the opening pages is clearly marked out for poverty, suffering, degradation and criminality. We've been reading this story at least since Dickens and, in contrast, say, to Sarah Waters' linguistically brilliant portrayal of the Borough in Fingersmith, there is a sense of having been here before, of marking time, of earning the rest of the novel.

It does, though, turn out to be worth it. There isn't much underlying moral ambiguity in this book: the costs of settlement are appalling, which makes Thornhill its villain, even while he carries its sympathetic weight. Grenville is particularly good on inarticulate love, and Thornhill's relationship with his wife, Sal, civilises him, makes him a good man and ensures that the reader is on his side. As husband, father and hard-working, decent man, he is also the book's hero.

Once freed, Thornhill falls in love with a point of land up the Hawkesbury River with the visceral desire for ownership of someone who has never been allowed to own anything. He dreams of his own hundred acres, of dignity and entitlement. It never crosses his mind, since the land is not settled, that it could already be owned. Grenville writes exactingly and with passion about the Australian landscape: the bright light, the skinny, grey-green trees that refuse to shed their leaves, the cliffs that tumble into the river through snaking mangroves. Thornhill recognises that this is a landscape that can remake a man.

She is also wonderful on the ex-cons who settle the river, left to get on with things by the authorities. Some, miraculously, find ways to accommodate themselves with the Aborigines, despite their isolation, fear and brutal pasts. Gradually, Thornhill starts faintly to appreciate that the Aborigines most remind him of the gentry back home. They don't appear to work for their food: they spend their days creating art, telling stories, making their babies laugh. And then he has to make a decision. This is where the sense that the book is heading somewhere familiar really works for Grenville; she plays throughout on a threat of impending disaster. It's difficult to read this novel without a heavy heart, because it's obvious that not everything can possibly work out.

Violence is erupting along the river, but a way opens up for Will to keep his wife and children safe and hold on to everything he has worked for. All it would take would be to stomach the necessary bloody, terrible, knowing violence. The Secret River is a sad book, beautifully written and, at times, almost unbearable with the weight of loss, competing distresses and the impossibility of making amends.


Geraldine Bedell

The GuardianTramp

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