The Australian book you should read next: The Secret River by Kate Grenville

We hold our breath as we read Grenville’s account of her convict ancestor, hoping for the harmonious ending we know cannot come

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I have been drawn to the Hawkesbury River since I was a child. We lived in Queensland but every year my parents would pack us into the car with luggage and a thermos of coffee and sandwiches cut at dawn and drive for a day until we reached Sydney, where my grandparents lived.

It would usually be dusk as we crossed the river at the old bridge at Brooklyn; the water darkly flashing, the hillsides creased with deep shadows. The river marked for me an exciting arrival, but also seemed weighted with mystery and promise.

As an adult I have been back to kayak, hike and holiday and always that sense remains. But I feel something else here too – things wonderful, things unspeakable, a presence.

When I first read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River soon after its release in 2005, I found in her words so much of what I have felt on the river. A subliminal, ancient aura. And the exquisite geography: “A place out of a dream, a fierce landscape of chasms and glowering cliffs and a vast unpredictable sky”, shorelines shadowed by leaning angophoras, their roots clutching and curling desperately around jutting sandstone, a “teasing sparkle and dance of light among the trees”.

When in 1809 William Thornhill, a character inspired by Grenville’s convict great-great-great-grandfather Solomon Wiseman, first sees the patch of ground he will claim on the river, he marvels: “No one had ever spoken to him of how a man might fall in love with a piece of ground.”

And, of course, in that line is everything. Because the land he decides to claim – to take, to steal – is the country of the Darug people and they have an intimate, intense knowledge of every inch of it, a knowledge acquired over millennia. They have cared for it, husbanded its resources, loved it too. They are part of the beating heart of this land. It is imbued with their story, with timeless memory.

Smoke rises from bushfires in valleys surrounding the Hawkesbury river
The Secret River is rich and alive with metaphor: the coldness, hardness and immovability of stone and rock; the dogs, everywhere dogs. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Grenville’s tense, sweeping story of Thornhill, his wife, Sarah, their grim, foul London lives, his transportation for the term of his natural life, the river, its characters – including the vile Smasher – the land on the river, and the psychopathic violence with which its Aboriginal owners are evicted, is shocking, riveting, vivid, sensory.

As ticket-of-leave man Thornhill and Sarah carve out their place on a “mild-mannered point”, an image of Frederick McCubbin’s painting The Pioneer flashes to mind. When Thornhill sees a sack hanging heavy on the end of a rope from a tree on Smasher’s patch, I hear Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze”. I can taste the ash in Sarah’s damper, the rot in the salt pork and the bitterness of the black tea.

The Secret River is rich and alive with metaphor: the coldness, hardness and immovability of stone and rock; the dogs, everywhere dogs – a bitch lying down and letting her pups suck the life out of her, “the dark curl of dog turd”, “a pack of dogs snapping at a hen with chicks”, skinny dogs, dogs barking at a pitch that is “high and hysterical” like frantic, slobbering slave dogs in a bayou pursuit.

Kate Grenville
Grenville wrote The Secret River to explore the story of her great-great-great-grandfather, convict Solomon Wiseman. Photograph: Darren James

Grenville’s multi-award-winning work has not been without its critics. Historians accused the novelist of conflating history and fiction and of omitting the voices of her Aboriginal characters. In later books, such as The Secret River’s “sequel”, The Lieutenant, Grenville worked to include those voices in a respectful and meaningful way. But she was also very open about her writing and research process from the beginning – her memoir-esque Searching for the Secret River details how she came to turn her ancestor’s story into a novel and the decisions she made in the telling – and I cannot but feel that, in 2020, every last perspective possible on the stains on our history can only add to our understanding.

Besides that, William Thornhill is not a character only of the past. His journey of ambition, greed, ignorance, temptation and corruption is perennial. So too is the colonist’s mentality; that Australian catchphrase “if it moves, shoot it, if it doesn’t, chop it down” is writ large on Grenville’s river.

The novel is heavy with an impending sense of dread. Sarah scores the bark of a tree near their hut to mark the passing of the days before she can return to England – Thornhill has promised her that. Five years they will give the colony, he says, “as God is my witness”. With each cut, it is as though she seals her fate and the fate of his soul.

We hold our breath as we read, hoping for the happy, harmonious ending we know cannot come, hoping that the worst will not happen. But perhaps even more than that, we hold our breath in the hope that Thornhill, who has in flashes realised the humanity of the Aboriginal people he has encountered, will find his own humanity – that he will become the hero required.

Thornhill’s failure to be that man, puffed up and preening at the end of it all in his “fine stone house”, a dodgy build when all is said and done (“something was wrong with the way the pieces fitted together”), is almost as shattering as the violence and horror that must unfold for him to secure what he sees as his place in the world.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville is published by Text

• Stephanie Wood is the author of Fake, out now through Vintage


Stephanie Wood

The GuardianTramp

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