"Worthy" is a judgemental term that can be used in two main ways. It can be used in a positive sense to describe something that contributes to our understanding of a subject in a sympathetic fashion. Or it can be used in a highly negative sense for something that is trying very hard to prove its value, but which ends up being smug and self-satisfied. It's this latter definition I'm applying to the The Secret River.
William Thornhill is born into poverty in London in the late 1700s. Just as he seems to be getting his life together, he is convicted of theft and transported (along with his whole family) to the penal colonies of Australia for the rest of his natural life. Thornhill uses his exile to try and build a better life, but his attempts to establish himself as a landowner inevitably bring himself and his fellow prisoners into conflict with the country's indigenous population.
I bought The Secret River because from its description it sounded like an interesting and challenging read that raised some important issues. Sadly, what I found was a turgid, slow book that thinks it is far more important than it actually is.
Things don't get off to a great start with a very slow opening section. Bogged down with a slow pace and too much descriptive text, The Secret River seems almost determined to turn the reader against it right from the start. I persevered, hoping that once the background information was out of the way, things would pick up. Sadly they rarely did. Although there were odd bright moments when I thought that The Secret River might finally deliver on its promise, for the most part I found it to be a very disappointing read.
At times, Secret River is a blatant attempt at "literature". It goes out of its way to use fancy language or "clever" narrative techniques (there is no dialogue in the traditional sense, speech is merely integrated into standard paragraphs and marked out by appearing in italics). Such techniques are dangerous and used badly just smack of an author who wants to show how clever they are. Techniques like this can add to a book (look at Wolf Hall), but they have to be used because they fit the narrative, not just because the author wants to show off.
Grenville also has a tendency to provide long, descriptive passages. Initially, I didn't mind these, since they helped to provide some context on the setting or the characters. Early descriptions of conditions in 1780s London or early 1800s Australia are necessary to help establish in the mind of the reader just how harsh conditions were. Having established this, however, Grenville continues to write highly descriptive prose for the rest of the book which simply serves to slow it down horribly.
I could accept this if the descriptions added a lot to the atmosphere. The Secret River, though, appears to have been written through some seriously rose-tinted glasses. The descriptions of poverty in London, for example, really don't ring true. It's as though poverty was a bit of a bore and a small inconvenience, but that the people who suffered from it were a chirpy, spirited bunch who enjoyed finding ways around it. I think the history books might tell us otherwise.
Similarly, when Thornhill arrives in Australia, it's almost like being sent away in disgrace to the other side of the world is a minor inconvenience. Transportation to Australia was, in some ways, actually worse than the death sentence. The abject poverty, isolation and abandonment in a harsh, foreign land was a horrible fate. In The Secret River it's more like a jolly little jape, a chance to forge a new life and within a relatively short space of time, that's exactly what has happened as Thornhill carves out a new role for himself as respected trader and landowner. Hurrah!
Yes, there are a lot of issues raised by this book. Some of these are quite obvious (poverty and inequity in Georgian England; the casual violence meted out to the native Australians by the settlers); others are perhaps more subtle (how shifts in power and attitude can lead to the bullied becoming the bully and almost inadvertently repressing others in the same way that they themselves have been repressed). Yet you never really feel like the book properly tackles these issues head on. It rather dances around them, leaving the reader to make up their own mind about what is "good" and what is "bad". Normally, I'd be a fan of this approach - treating the reader with intelligence - but like so much else in the book, it's disappointing that Grenville seems unwilling to condemn some pretty abhorrent behaviour.
This complete and utter lack of historical accuracy left me very cold. It's almost as though Grenville (a native of Australia) can't acknowledge the country's past and wants to put a nice gloss over it. OK, she gets a little harsher later in the book when considering the fate of Australia's native population, but to be honest, by the time she got to this point, the damage had been done and the book was pretty much irretrievable for me.
It's also not helped by the fact that the main character is deeply unlikeable. He's presumably meant to be "complex", but he actually comes across as uncaring, deeply selfish with an extreme unpleasantness hidden beneath a self-serving exterior. He is not someone you want to follow around, much less to see succeed. The other characters are so badly sketched they barely register on the consciousness.
Grenville also has a tendency to write in very, very long sections which does not aid readability. The book itself is split into several sections and within these there are few chapters to split the text up. Worse, there are few natural breaks in the text, so you either have to commit to reading a lot before you come to a suitable stopping point, or you have to stop at an unnatural point in the narrative, because there is no alternative. All too often, reading The Secret River was something akin to a chore, rather than something I was supposedly doing for pleasure.
To add insult to injury, the Kindle edition which I read supposedly ends with a preview chapter of the sequel Sarah Thornhill (quite why you would want to read more is beyond me, but still). In fact, when I looked at it, it was nothing more than a repeat of one of the chapters from the book I had just read! Just goes to show the general lack of care and attention that went into producing this Kindle version.
The Secret River is available for around £6-7 in both print and Kindle edition. It can be picked up a lot cheaper, but I'd save your money if I were you.
The Secret River
Canongate Books, 2011
© Copyright SWSt 2012
Ok, I'll confess straight away: I loved this novel. If I could give it ten out of five stars, I would. The title made me wary (especially after having recently read 'The Savage Garden', similarly titled but which I found to be exceedingly dull) and the mountains of critical praise that dominated the back and inside covers made me dubious - could any book really be this good? Fortunately, the answer was hell yes.
-- Background --
Kate Grenville is an Australian writer whose last novel was published five years before this one and won her the Orange Prize. I can only say that the time spent on this one was worthwhile, as I've not read her previous work. This story is loosely linked to the historical life of one of Grenville's ancestors, but she stresses her research and the fictional nature of the overall construct in her acknowledgements.
-- Basic story --
William Thornhill is a mostly honest man struggling to earn enough to support his wife and child in Victorian London. He has always been involved in some petty crime to keep his head above water and Sal off the streets, but when he is caught and sentenced to be hung his world crashes around him. As Thornhill mopes, his determined wife sets in chain a series of events which result in the whole family being transported to Australia to live in a penal colony. Gradually, Thornhill becomes a free man and starts to make his impression on the harsh but beautiful Australian landscape. What no one had considered, were the natives. Initially Thornhill and other ex-convicts live uncomfortably beside the 'savages', but as events become increasingly violent, this hard working man must find a way to secure his new life for good.
-- Opening/style --
There is a prologue of sorts which cuts to the heart of the story while creating a vivid sense of the danger to be found in Australia. This made me feel immediately involved in the story and demonstrated Thornhill's distinct discomfort with the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia. I immediately began to wonder: could he ever overcome his whole context sufficiently to recognise the basic humanity of the native peoples?
After the prologue we dive into a familiar, stinking, class divided Victorian London. I loved reading this very Dickensian section of the novel. Some reviewers have suggested that this kind of writing has been overdone and become rather dull. I appreciate that I am a great lover of Dickens' style, but I disagree with the notion that just because something has been well done before that it becomes boring to do it again. I found these chapters very high paced and compelling to read, especially as Thornhill begins to make his way in the world, only to have convincing incidents start to ruin him all over again.
I could easily imagine and follow Thornhill's difficult childhood and appreciate how this shaped the man he later became. Without seeing these formative years, I suspect I would have found Thornhill a far less sympathetic character later on, and this could have spoiled the perfect balance Grenville creates in our response to him. Despite acting at times in a way that should appal modern readers, Thornhill never quite loses our broad sympathy because we are so aware of his individual, social and historical context. Grenville achieves all of this without ever having to say "look, this is what it would really have been like, ok?" The characters and places are so convincingly evoked that you are able to imagine their lives outside the confines of the story, to some extent. This is partly because she describes everything in just the right amount of detail, including telling incidents easily in the broad sweep of the narrative.
-- Characters / atmosphere --
Finally, the Thornhills travel to Australia and the mood actually darkens. Perhaps it is the realisation that class is equally important here, in the places that matter. Perhaps it is the way that our breadwinner continues to indulge in petty crime, despite being otherwise hard-working. Perhaps it is simply a sense of foreboding based on our knowledge of history. Whatever it is, there is a quiet sense of menace from the opening scenes in New South Wales that deepens inexorably as the novel continues. This means that, despite switching locations, the novel remains quietly compelling as we read to see how the Thornhills can adapt, and how the natives will react to their presence.
Grenville has separated the story into sections which reflect both geographical movements and progression in the relationships between the settlers and the natives of the country. These help to create a sense of development and allow tracts of time to pass by. (This is a novel which spans many years.) I found this useful because it allowed breaks which the lack of chapters often prevented me from taking!
Perhaps the biggest strength of this novel - after the excellent description - is Grenville's skilful rendering of character and ability to leave the moral judgements ambiguous. The way the settlers treat the natives is appalling and sometimes disturbing. There are two incidents in particular, committed by one of the grosser settlers, who is revealingly called 'Smasher', which still fill my mind now and cause me to shudder. These incidents are confined to the places in the narrative where they occur, no one really discusses them later, yet they continue to haunt me due to the shocking understatement with which they are described. The very lack of further consideration always renders this shocking: Thornhill will not tell Sal, who is increasingly uncomfortable in this isolated land, and there is no one else to tell. Those of the settlers who know will never tell so these incidents become parts of the great unspoken knowledge of the novel and of history. In a sense then, Thornhill's silence could make him seem to be an accomplice in hideous acts, yet I never felt this way. The sense of context was too strong. Who could Thornhill have told? What could he have done? Most chillingly, who (apart from Sal) would care?
There are too many characters to discuss them all, but a few are worthy of special mention. Thornhill's second son begins to take a very different route from his father which causes friction but created, for me, one of the few places in the novel where I felt some brief hope for the future. It is interesting to follow his reactions, especially towards the close of the novel. Sal is also very interesting, in her own right and as a foil for Thornhill. She is determined but kind, yet even she suffers from the same pride which allows Thornhill to insist to an old friend, with whom he once p**sed on his own feet to keep them warm, that 'Mr Thornhill would be more appropriate, Ned.' The social stratification, so visible and predictable in London, is given a newly disturbing edge by its presence in the colony and effect on the otherwise admirable Sal. This is a subtle but powerful lesson on how such stratification breeds envy, greed and violence.
-- Final thoughts --
I found this a compelling read throughout, although I particularly enjoyed the Dickensian opening chapters. There is some gruesome violence interspersed throughout the later section of the book, which is haunting due to the understatement Grenville employs and never seems excessive. I enjoyed reading about the characters and seeing how they tried to adapt to their new lifestyles. The way Sal and Thornhill manage their rise through society is especially revealing.
There is a lot of sadness in the book. Obviously the way the natives are treated is disturbing, and the Thornhills lose their right to live in London, but there are more subtle sadnesses too. Husband and wife grow increasingly distant as Thornhill's choices centre on his needs rather than Sal's and the children's. Grenville conveys this distance in such a way that we understand more than Thornhill what he has lost and how he has lost it.
The historical setting is convincingly drawn and I feel that I have really learned about the culture of these people in an engaging and memorable way. This should really be required reading for those who see any other culture or group of people as being so different or distant as to label the other 'less than me'.
In my opinion, there are two real tests of a novel's quality and this passes both with flying colours. I kept thinking about the characters, situation and values in the novel long after I closed the final page, and I definitely plan to reread this one day. I think it is suitable for anyone who is interested in Australian history or clashes between cultures - or even just anyone who is interested in reading a powerful tale about ordinary people in extraordinary times.
Review of The Secret River by Kate Grenville
I am reviewing the paperback version of the book. Publisher Canongate Books Ltd, 352 pages, ISBN 978-1841958286, cover price £7.99.
On the strength of a friend's recommendation I borrowed this novel from our local library, he had rated the novel very highly, so I thought I would give it a go. I had not come across the author Kate Grenville before so her writing was new and fresh to me.
The book begins in London, the year is 1806. William Thornhill is happily married to his childhood sweetheart Sal, they have one child and another expected. William is a waterman on the River Thames, life is tough but bearable in comparison to William's harsh and poverty stricken childhood in the slums of the city. William's father-in-law has rescued him from a life of hunger and taught him the trade of a waterman. When his father-in-law passes away, followed swiftly by his mother-in-law, William and Sal find themselves struggling to make ends meet.
Thames watermen and lighter men have ample opportunity to thieve from their cargo and William finds himself falling into the trap of pilfering goods. William makes a mistake, a very bad mistake for which he and his family are made to pay dearly. He is sentenced to hang as a thief, however at the last moment, his sentence is reduced and he is told that he is to be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. William's wife and family are to accompany him and Sal is to be William's 'master' in the colonies.
The sea voyage is difficult and William's second son is born during the course of the journey. He is permitted only a brief glance at his child after the birth, as males and females are segregated on board the convict ship. On arrival in Australia the couple are reunited and have to go through the formalities of registering as a convict and his master before being allocated a shack to live in.
The story continues with the Thornhill's efforts to build a life for themselves in Australia.
After a five year period, William is entitled to apply for his freedom, which he does and is granted. Once he is a free man, the family lay claim to a hundred acres of land on the banks of the Hawkesbury river, the secret river referred to in the book's title. The land is not unoccupied however and Aborigine natives threaten the very existence of the family.
On their plot of land, the real difficulties begin as the family face an unknown world of loneliness, Aboriginal raids, hardship, hunger and suffering. William and Sal Thornhill are forced into a dilemma of sticking to their guns and making a life for themselves despite the dangers they face or giving in.
==About the Author==
I was unfamiliar with this author prior to reading The Secret River, so for the purposes of this review I have taken the liberty of quoting from Kate Grenville's biography which can be read in full on her website, www.Kategrenville.com
"Kate Grenville was born in Sydney, Australia. After completing an Arts degree at Sydney University she worked in the film industry (mainly as an editor) before living in the UK and Europe for several years and starting to write. In 1980 she went to the USA and completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado.
On her return to Australia in 1983 she worked at the Subtitling Unit for SBS Television. In 1984 her first book, a collection of stories - Bearded Ladies - was published. Since then she's published seven novels and four books about the writing process (one co-written with Sue Woolfe).
The Secret River ( 2005) has won many prizes, including the Commonwealth Prize for Literature and the Christina Stead Prize. It was short listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. Since publication it has become an international best-seller and has been translated into many languages. "**
==Availability and Cost==
The cover price on my copy is £7.99. The novel can be purchased from various online book sellers such as www.amazon.co.uk (£4.76), www.snazal.com (£2.38) or www.alltopbooks.com (£6.99).
==My Thoughts and Conclusion==
The Secret River is a haunting story of life in the colonies. The central characters, William and Sal Thornhill are believable and strongly drawn. Whilst William is not exactly a bad person, he is a bit of a rogue for whom nothing seems to run smoothly, I found myself warming to him as the novel progressed and actually caring what happened to his family
The novel is written in a slightly unusual fashion in that speech between the characters is presented in italics. I am not sure that I like this style of writing and found that it detracted a little from my enjoyment of the novel. That is of course, merely a personal observation and other readers may not find this an inconvenience.
The plot is a little slow at first and I thought that a little more depth could have been given to the family's sea crossing to Australia. Once the Thornhill's arrive in Sydney however the plot becomes fairly fast moving.
On the whole, I did enjoy this novel, I felt that the historical aspect of convicts being transported to the colonies was well researched and the author painted a very vivid picture of life for the convicts both before and after their transportation.
If you enjoy a well crafted plot with a historical slant, I would recommend this novel.
Thank you for reading
©brittle1906 January 2010
**The author information section of this review was taken in part from the author's website:- www.kategrenville.com
My reviews may be found on other review sites under the same user name.
The Secret River
London 1806 - William Thornhill, happily wedded to his childhood sweetheart Sal, is a waterman on the River Thames. Life is tough but bearable until William makes a mistake, a bad mistake for which he and his family are made to pay dearly. His sentence: to be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is the book of the month at our book club and is probably not a book I would have chosen for myself but is an extremely interesting portrail into life for people in that age and of the two countries.
This story is basically in two parts, Will's London life and then his Australian life. The two are most definitely linked to each other but in terms of Will's and Sal's feelings and adventures they are worlds apart, or you could say continents apart. The story starts in London where Will is from and diaries his early life and then that of a worker man on the River Thames. It must have been an extremely hard time and one that we cannot really comprehend. The writer goes into great detail about how life was and it sounds so tough and dark but typical of the early 19th century. You get to see how the class system works and operates in that time and how family all work together to support each other, even at a very young age.
I think the author really makes you like Will and not necessarily feel sorry for him as his life has been hard, but just wish him to succeed in all his does. Yes, he has been on the wrong side of the law but those were the circumstances he found himself in and he works harder than any other character I have read about so for sheer grit and determination you have to be rooting for him.
I really liked the character of Sal, his wife. She comes off as an extremely strong chacracter and the one that really holds the family together. I can sympathise with her wish that they can go back to London at some point in life and understand why she counts the days away until they can move back. It's not that she's unhappy with Will or her love for Will and their family, she just misses the person she was.
Life in Australia takes up much more of the book. I think it's fascinating to learn about the country at that time. Anyone who has been to Sydney will recognise it as the sprawling metropolis that it is but back then it was barely inhabited and it's well known that convicts were sent there to populate the country. It must have been so vast and unwelcoming with its heat and barren countryside. I found it very interesting the way the new settlers had a new chance at life and in a way it must have been very exciting. The way they went from convicts to free men was very interesting and the fact that you could just pick a plot of land, cultivate and then it was yours was amazing. I can't think of anywhere else in the world were this could or would happen now. I'm sure descendants of those convicts are very happy now because they are probably very rich land owners.
A lot of the story focused on the British white mans introduction to the native Aboriginals. The misconceptions surrounding them were absolutely insane and cruel but in a way if you had only been informed that they were savages who would kill you immediately with one throw of a spear then perhaps you would have those thoughts too. It was interesting as to how all the characters formed their different relationships with the natives.
Kate Grenville says in the front of the book that this novel is dedicated to the Aboriginal people of Australia: past, present and future. According to the back of the book she is one of Australia's best loved authors. In 2006 The Secret River won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It is published by Canongate Books and has an ISBN number of 978 1 84195 828 6
I chose this book because it had been nominated for the Man booker Prize and the author, Kate Grenville, had previously won the Orange Prize. I don't know enough about the world of literature to understand if these awards are prestigious in the bigger scheme of things, but was presuming that it meant the book couldn't be all that bad.
The critique of the novel on the back page declares is as a book "everyone should read" and describes it as "compelling", "magnificent" and "brilliantly atmospheric" amongst other things.
My disappointment in the book started on the opening page. The book opens with "In the room where William Thornhill grew up, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, no one could move an elbow without hitting the wall or the table or a sister or a brother. Light struggled in through small panes of cracked glass and the soot from the smoking fireplace veiled the walls." In my opinion the text just sounds too crafted and as if an awful lot of work went into it - this style of language continues all the way through the book. I found it hard to concentrate on the plot at times because the crafted style of the language was just too distracting.
The plot centres around William Thornhill who in the early 19th century is convicted of theft and, saved from the noose at the last minute, is subsequently deported to a convict station in New South Wales. Will is accompanied to Australia by his long-suffering wife Sal and their growing family.
Grenville portrays Will as a man who, destined by the poverty into which he was born, has no choice but to be a thief. Without spoiling the plot too much, Will and his family prosper in New South Wales and the book concentrates on the decision Will must take as to whether to remain in Australia or return to their old life in London.
My other main problem with the book, in addition to the overworked style, is its moral ambiguity. Will is, according to the author, "a man no better or worse than most". I could accept this in light of the destitution which Will and his family would have faced had he not resorted to theft while in London. However, Will does not learn his lesson, and to cut a long story short, indulged in more theft which Grenville appears to justify from a kind of Robin Hood perspective - he's stealing from the rich so it's OK. Although this is potentially justifiable, what cannot be justified, are the atrocities committed against the native Australians who are threatening to halt the progress of civilisation in the new colony. Grenville makes no comment on this, and even continues to praise Will as a man of the people.
Conclusion - not that bad really, but I expected more because of Grenville's nomination for literary awards and the critical acclaim on the back cover. Recommended for a holiday read you can pick up and put down again, but in my opinion, it sure ain't literary genius! Don't be fooled by the awards!
I tend to steer clear of the sort of books that are in bestseller lists, simply because I am so often disappointed when they aren't as good as I was expecting. Even those books selected for last year's Man Booker Prize wouldn't usually have been on my to read list. However, with a book token in hand, I decided to give this book a try. Having been nominated for and expected to win the Man Booker Prize last year, Kate Grenville was finally pipped at the post by Kiran Desai.
William Thornhill is from a large family living in London, all struggling to make a living so that they can eat their next meal. At the end of the eighteenth century, there is much poverty in the city and many are forced to turn to crime to feed their families. William is luckier than many; he lives off his wits and manages to survive, particularly when his girlfriend's father accepts him in to his business as a waterman, supplying goods up and down the River Thames while earning a reasonable wage through crime. Eventually though, he is caught and sentenced to life in the colonies along with his wife and child.
On arrival in Australia, the Thornhills work hard to throw off the shackles of servitude and William is eventually able to buy his freedom. Finding a plot of land down the river (the secret river of the title), he is determined to make his home and living there. It is not, however, unoccupied and the natives, never welcoming, become more and more of a threat to his livelihood and family. Will he be forced to leave? Or will he be able to stand his ground and raise his family productively?
I haven't read any work by Kate Grenville before, so apart from knowing that critics considered it good enough to be nominated for a literary prize and that it should therefore be good, I didn't really know what to expect. I am not particularly a fan of historical fiction, even when it is loosely based around the truth; however, I quickly found my interest growing when I began this book. This is a tale of overcoming adversity, but it also tells the story of those that were born and bred in the colonies, only to have their livelihoods, and often lives, threatened by strangers who came and overtook their land.
William Thornhill, the main character in the story, was very well described. The author is honest; he is not a particularly good man, although he is no worse than many others in his situation. His wants in life are initially modest; he just wants to bring up his family with enough to eat and drink. Life conspires against him though and it is only through sheer willpower and hard work that he manages to make a name for himself. I found him a very natural character and although I didn't always agree with what he did, I could understand why he did it.
Although this is not really a love story, the love between William and his wife, Sal, is plain to see. Sal is my favourite character in the book. She is feisty, determined and loving and stands by her man, even though his actions are not always what she would do herself. She is forced to put up with much hardship, yet always does it with a smile and the hope that she will eventually be able to return to London. I warmed to her instantly and really cared about what happened to her. Like so many women, then and now, her life was dictated by a man and her choices were limited and I really hated the idea that she might not survive the struggle.
I like the way Kate Grenville writes. The prose is snappy and sounds educated, but never tips over into pretentiousness. I particularly liked the fact that speech was highlighted in italics, which made it stand out much more than the usual quotation marks. The pace of the story is very steady; there are no real peaks and troughs as can be expected from crime fiction or adventure, but I liked this because at no point did I find myself getting bored. I was reminded of Rose Tremain's work, although I think this is as much because the last book I read by Rose Tremain was set in New Zealand around the same time as this as it is similarities in their writing style.
The only negative side to the story was the treatment of the native Australians, who were killed, threatened and maimed in their hundreds. There are some very unpleasant descriptions of their treatment, which make for very uncomfortable reading at times. This is, however, history and I think Kate Grenville should be admired for not trying to cover it up. This also highlights the development of racism and the fact that although relations between the two sides were initially neutral, one side was infringing on the rights of another and the difference in their cultures made it difficult for them to live together peacefully. Looking at it this way makes it easier to understand how racism came about in the first place, although it of course does not excuse it in any way.
So is this book worthy of being nominated for the Man Booker Prize? It is certainly a good book and one that I really enjoyed. However, I've read many books that I have thought are as good as, if not better than this. I don't know how the Man Booker Prize works. Is it as much who you know as what you write? Are politics involved? I'm really not sure and although I liked this book very much, it wasn't outstanding. In the future, I'm not sure that I will expect a book to be good just because it has been put up for a prize.
If you enjoy historical novels, particularly those based on fact, or you just like a really good read, I think you'll enjoy this. Recommended.
The book is available from Amazon for £6.39. Published by Canongate Books, it has 352 pages. ISBN: 184195828X