The Secret River
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. ( )