Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review: The Secret River

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Read: 17 August - 18 September 2010
Pages: 349

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. Soon Thornhill, a man no better or worse than most, has to make the most difficult decision of his life ...

My thoughts

I have always been interested in Australian culture and history, and I have learned a lot from visiting institutions like Hyde Park Barracks and The Rocks Discovery Museum in Sydney. But reading a novel gives you a different, more personal perspective on history. The Secret River is based on the story of Grenville's ancestor Solomon Wiseman and his arrival on the Hawkesbury River, which lends it an air of credibility. I could easily believe this story to have happened.

I started out sympathising with William Thornhill and his struggle to stay afloat so to speak, but by the end of the book I didn't care much for him anymore. At one point he became greedy and selfish and although I understand him wanting to move up in the world, he completely disregarded his wife and family's needs and safety. His wife, Sal, is by far the strongest character. She is capable of living for the moment, doing the best with what she's got. Her only wish is to save enough money so the family can go back to London one day, and it is heartbreaking to see that hope slowly fade as time passes.

One thing I never got used to was the way dialogue is noted. Direct speech is in italics instead of being marked with quotation marks or a dash. This was new to me and a bit difficult to grasp at first. For some reason, it felt more like thoughts than speech, and several times I had to remind myself that the characters actually said this out load to each other, and didn't just think it to themselves. But the writing is wonderful. Grenville has a straightforward yet almost singing language which is easy to read. She has the ability to convey a lot of meaning with few words. These are just two lines that stuck with me (both from page 310, incidentally):

It was only a matter of enough tomorrows.

Thornhill felt something inside him slow down.

I know there are many issues to address when reviewing this book – the clash between the western settlers and the aborigines for one – but to be honest I don't feel I know enough about these subjects to comment. So I'm going to leave it at this, and simply say that I found The Secret River to be a good story about hardship, love and the search for home.

My rating: 4/6

Kate Grenville has also written a follow-up to The Secret River, called Searching for the Secret River, in which she describes both the research she undertook into the history behind the book and her writing process.

I read this as part of the Aussie Author Challenge.

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