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The Secret River

The Secret River
Kate Grenville
334 pages

Set in Australia in the early 1800s, The Secret River is the story of William Thornhill, a London riverboat driver sent to Australia after being convicted of a crime. He is accompanied by his wife Sal, who acts as his "master" as required by law. During his twelve month sentence he finds work on a riverboat and, after serving time, buys his own boat and becomes an independent businessman running goods on the river Hawkesbury. Like many "emancipists" of that time, he also stakes his claim to a large parcel of land. The only problem is, the native people claimed it years before. The white settlers demonstrate remarkable hubris, assuming they have a right to the land and shoo-ing the startled natives away.

William embraces life as a free man, but Sal longs for home. When he buys a 100-acre parcel, he extracts a promise from Sal to stay for five years. She believes they will then return to London, but William never takes his part of the bargain seriously. Sal notes each passing day by marking a tree with a knife. "The unspoken between them was that she was a prisoner here, marking off the days in her little round of beaten earth, and it was unspoken because she did not want him to feel a jailer. She was, in a manner of speaking, protecting him from herself." (p. 150) The book's title comes from this and other unspoken secrets between the couple. As time passes, more and more goes unspoken: the size of the native camp on their land, the details of atrocities between whites and native people, the prejudiced and often violent behaviors exhibited by their neighbors. But Sal is no fool, and is well aware of the escalating tensions and the danger to her family.

Grenville keeps a low- to medium-grade tension running throughout the novel. Some of the tension comes from the very act of survival in the Australian wilderness, and the stress between William and Sal. But the primary conflict is direclty with the native people. While William demonstrates a growing awareness of the natives as human beings, as it says on the book jacket, "to keep his family safe, he must permit terrifying cruelty to come to innocent people." The book's denouement portrays the Thornhills' lives years after this "terrifying cruelty." It is somewhat disappointing, as it's unclear how he and Sal resolved their differences. But the outcome is probably quite true to that period in history. This is a memorable book, well deserving of its Commonwealth Prize and Booker Shortlist recognition. ( )


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 4th, 2008 12:29 pm (UTC)
I loved this book but understood why there was some disquiet with the ending, which as you say doesn't clarify the way in which the outcomes came about. It was the first of Granville's books that I had read and I'll certainly look out for anything she writes in the future.
Feb. 4th, 2008 05:57 pm (UTC)
Your comment to my Sunday Salon post really got me thinking about the ending, and is why I touched on it in my review. Thanks for the inspiration ...
Feb. 8th, 2008 03:55 am (UTC)
Secret River
This is the first book I ever reviewed for Harper Collins Canada. I loved this book so much.

Then, 2 years ago Kate Grenville was here talking about the book. She is an excellent speaker. She also wrote the book Searching the Secret River, which is about her research for the book. I plan to read it this year.

Just in case you want to see my review of The Secret River, I added it to my blog last year, here is the link:



Feb. 9th, 2008 06:12 pm (UTC)
I read this one, too, a couple of years ago.
Here's my review: http://www.semicolonblog.com/?p=1551

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )