Newest Review: ... read. At times, Secret River is a blatant attempt at "literature". It goes out of its way to use fancy language or "... more
From convict to landowner
The Secret River - Kate Grenville
Member Name: sunmeilan
The Secret River - Kate Grenville
Advantages: Interesting, compelling story
Disadvantages: Killing of natives, violence
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
Summary: Runner-up for the Man Booker Prize 2006