I’ve come late to Kate Grenville’s acclaimed 2006 novel, The Secret River, but just ahead of the renewed attention which will accompany the screening of ABC’s two-part mini-series adaptation next year.
William Thornhill, the protagonist, struggles in grinding poverty in the London at the turn of the nineteenth century, working as a boatman on the Thames and sometimes stealing cargo to make ends meet. Transported as a convict to New South Wales with his wife Sal, he gains his freedom and carves out a new life, obsessed with owning and cultivating his own patch of land on the Hawkesbury River. His desire for that land contends against Sal’s competing desire to return to England and the presence of the Aborigines, semi-dispossessed, but refusing to leave. The logic of plot demands that if he is to get what he wants, he must pay a price. The tension with the Aborigines culminates in a massacre by the whites of the men, women and children of the Aboriginal camp. One white pays with his life, but the price for Thornhill is different. His price is the nagging guilt he must live with for the rest of his life, and the loss of relationship with his son, his old friend, and the surviving Aborigine he once had an uneasy understanding with. He becomes a rich, successful man in the aftermath of the massacre and builds a great house over the cave paintings. “Sometimes, sitting in the parlour in the red velvet armchair, Thornhill thought of it underneath him, clear and sharp on the rock. He knew it was there, and his children might remember, but his children’s children would walk about on the floorboards and never know what was beneath their feet.” (316)
Of course, the irony is that even though his children’s children became good at forgetting, we who are several more generations down the line are finally remembering the price, the secret history of our colonisation, our acts of dispossessing and murder. The Secret River is a very intentional act of remembering, or imagining where there are gaps in memory. It made me see colonisation in a newly vivid light, no longer in abstractions or statistics. It is a worthy, important novel for that reason, but perhaps it’s also part of what prevents it from being a masterpiece, it being too consciously a moral novel, constrained by what it is trying to say.
Some miscellaneous thoughts:
- The early section in London had me feeling the desired sympathy for the terrible of the working class in that time; but later a nagging question as to whether it was as unrelentingly impossible for most people as that – in this case, there are a Dickensian number of tragedies which befall them.
- A compelling aspect of the novel is the way the Thornhills, having been oppressed, seize the opportunity to become oppressors, lording it over convict labourers and, ultimately, being willing to kill Aborigines.
- There are patches of startling, beautiful prose, and yet only patches; from (my hazy, nine-year old) memory her earlier novel Idea of Perfection, was more consistently beautifully written.
- The showdown between Sal’s desire to return to London and Thornhill’s desire to stay is built up expertly, yet its resolution is unconvincing. She just drops it, in the end, after hearing the Aborigines “won’t be a problem” any longer – yet the presence of Aborigines wasn’t the driving force.