Monday, February 25, 2013

The Secret River

The Secret River
By Kate Grenville

About a third of the way through this book I developed a measure of regret for all the Australian literature I have not read. I admit it, I've read very little Australian literature. Furthermore, my understanding of Australian history is cursory. I know its history as a penal colony for the British Empire and I understand that, like their counterparts in North America, much of Australia's history is colored (pardon the mildly racist pun... I couldn't resist) by their relations with the indigenous populations. So it turns out that Kate Grenville's Booker Prize nominated novel The Secret River was a bit of an introduction to the particulars of Australia's earliest colonial days.

One part The Good Earth, another The Poisonwood Bible, The Secret River chronicles the life of transported felon Will Thornhill. Thornhill's story begins in late 18th-century London, where he has been born into extreme poverty. But when he marries Sal, the daughter of a local boatman, he is given the chance to make an honest go of it. However, a series of untimely events erases all of the marginal success bestowed on Will and his family and the vice-like grip of London poverty  returns. He takes one too many risks, gets caught and is condemned to hang. Sal, who is able to read and write, greases the right wheels and manages to have Will sentence lessened to life in New South Wales.

The introductory chapters about life in London serves as an exquisite preamble for the cultural collisions that follow in Sydney and, later, the Hawksbury River. It is vitally important to understand where the typical early 19th century Australian settler came from and what sort of person he was. They may have been industrious and diligent but they were also Great Britain's felonious castoffs. This is a point that cannot be ignored.

In Sydney, Will is able to earn back his freedom and works diligently to make a new life for himself and his ever expanding family. He becomes obsess with the notion of purchasing land, obviously taking to heart the old axiom "A man is nothing without land." When his eventually purchases a parcel of land in the wilds along the Hawksbury River, Will initially thinks that his life is complete. A place where he can earn an honest living off the land.

But the land of Will's hope and dreams, land that that he purchased with his own money and of which he holds title and deed  isn't his land and can never be his land. Within days of setting up a hut and planting a filed of corn, Will is confronted by a group of aboriginal people who make it clear that this land is, was and will always be their land. What follows is a escalation of tense that turns angry, the brutal, then murderous.

A lesser writer would have used this opportunity to roll out the tired "noble savage" trope whereby Will and the settlers learn a valuable lesson about living in harmony with and learning from their friendly aboriginal neighbors. In that lesser novel, the narrative would culminate in the evil settlers getting their comeuppance while the astute, forward-thinking settlers who sided with the gentle natives continue to live in peace and harmony. If said lesser novelist was truly Hollywood, there would be a big dinner at the end where all the good settlers and all the natives get together and laugh and sing and we'd all feel good about the future. Now I don't know a lot about Australian history but I do know that is exactly what never happened. And Kate Grenville is no lesser writer.

Instead Grenville paints a far more complicated image that is devoid of traditional good natives and bad settlers. We are confronted by white settlers brought to the land by force rather than choice, many of these settlers were shockingly uneducated and violent. Although driven by greed and hunger, these settlers were given the chance to reinvent themselves and make a life and they took it as would anyone else, often by forced removal of aboriginal populations. We are also introduced to the more lenient white settlers who befriend attempt to work with the aboriginals. Their plight is so ultimately marginal that despite their good intentions they seem to have blinded themselves to the very real problems surrounding them. Conversely, the aboriginal people aren't the pacific simpletons who trade their birthrights for a handful of seeds as they are often portrayed to be.  They know full well what is occurring along the river and act in retaliatory fashion all too often. 

In this context, the cultural clash that invariable follows is far more complex than simply the greedy white settler wantonly raping and pillaging the traditional lands of the indigenous populations. Grenville does an admirable job of painting life in early 19th century Australia with its escalating tensions and intensifying bloodshed. The Secret River is an extremely nuanced novel that masterfully balances the apprehensions of colonialism without resorting to traditional cliches.

It is also a reminder to me that I need to read more Australian literature.


Jenny said...

I don't know about a book about Australia but I have a theory that Australian authors can do know wrong.

Brian Joseph said...

I myself only have a rudimentary knowledge of Australian history and I do not believe that I have read any serious Australian literature. I really should correct that too.

This sounds really good. I like the fact that as you point out, the author infuses complexity into the story without resorted to cliches.

Marie said...

I hadn't heard of this and I'm really glad you reviewed it. I'll take a look for it. I enjoy teh few Australian books I've read and I'm always looking for more.

JoanneMarie Faust said...

Great review! This book was so good. It was one of my favorites the year it came out. Grenville spared no one. She invited us to a world filled with criminals, a small portion of whom want to take advantage of their fresh start in a new world. A very interesting tale well told.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I really enjoyed this too. As you mentioned, it would have been easy for Greville to lapse into stereotypes but it was all subtley done. I want to read the sequels at some point.

Ryan said...

@Jenny: Since my cross section remains small, I'll take your word for it.

@Brian Joseph: I think we often forget to read outside the British/American (and for me, Canadian) zone. I try to as often as possible given my limited ability.

@Marie: I hope you enjoy it. I get nervous when people actually take me up on my recommendations. But I'm also confident that this will not disappoint.

@JoanneMarie Faust: At first I thought you wrote cannibals and I panicked. I thought I had missed something really important.

@Sam: There are sequels?!?!

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