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
Cry Me A River
The Secret River - Kate Grenville
Member Name: SWSt
The Secret River - Kate Grenville
Advantages: An interesting concept that raises some important issues
Disadvantages: Dry, turgid prose; unlikeable characters; rose-tinted view of the past
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
Summary: A "worthy" book with little worth