Rating: 4 stars
I’ve had The Secret River on my library wishlist since the Olympics Reading Challenge on the Reader’s Room in 2016. Weezelle reminded me of it when she mentioned that she’d received it as a gift recently. That spurred me on to reserve it at the library.
Kate Grenville has written just the sort of book I love. Think Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, or Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh!, or even Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. It’s historical fiction that records the painful lives of the poor in all its sorrowing detail, but which manages to also capture the indomitable spirit and resourcefulness of some when faced with adversity. More than that, it examines how humans judge each other by the colour of their skin, and how brutally the British treated the indigenous people of Australia.
The novel follows Will Thornhill from his poverty-stricken childhood in the noxious environs of Bermondsey, where he would assist his father in collecting turds to sell to the local tanneries, to his apprenticeship as a waterman on the River Thames and his improving fortunes, and on to his desperation on the death of his wife’s parents one freezing winter that leads to Newgate prison and banishment to Australia.
The first section of the book was really gripping. Grenville brings to life the hardships endured by the working poor, the high infant mortality rates, the grinding hunger, and the illicit means people adopt in order to survive in a world focused on making the rich ever richer. Late 18th century London evokes the grimness of Dickens’s London, although this London isn’t yet as sprawling as the city that Dickens knew. There are still turnip fields and marshes between London and Greenwich when Thornhill is a boy.
I found the detail of the legal process and system of commuting death sentences into transportation for life interesting. This is an aspect of British history that I haven’t really studied in any detail and although Grenville only offers a brief view of it, what she focuses on added to my knowledge of the period. Thornhill’s backstory is also a vehicle for her to show that the British legal system for the working poor was excessively punitive, with the death penalty and transportation for life being imposed for what seem now to be trifling crimes. Grenville is demonstrating that most of the convicts sent to Australia weren’t dangerous criminals but people who felt they had no other option than to steal in order to feed and clothe their families.
There is much in this telling that resonates with how life currently feels like it’s going backwards in the UK for the majority of people. The capitalist system and the neo-liberals who use it as a tool to improve their own lot feels as though it’s going back beyond Victorian values (which at least had the fear of damnation and the use of philanthropy as a means for the rich to hope their worst behaviour would be cancelled out by the good they’d done when they reached heaven’s gate) to Georgian values of amassing wealth in the hands of the very few and seeing those whose labour creates that wealth as expendable.
I found the second section of the book, establishing Thornhill and his family in Sydney, and explaining how things worked in this new colony of the British Empire, less compelling. The grubbiness and the danger didn’t come across as strongly as that experienced in London. It felt like Grenville found it easier to imagine 18th century London than she did the beginnings of her own city. I think I was expecting something more in the vein of Joseph Conrad’s writings on colonial Africa, something more brutal. There is brutality, such as an encounter Thornhill has with a pardoned convict who has claimed land up the coast from Sydney and who has viciously murdered an indigenous Australian for stealing some of his corn, but much of it came across as a sanitised version of brutality. It didn’t hold any emotion towards the indigenous people for me, any sense of outrage about the way the colonisers behaved towards them.
Thornhill and his wife Sal were consistently believable characters. In agreement that they would return to London once Thornhill gained his pardon and earned enough to pay their passage back, buy a house and it’s freehold, and set up a thriving boat business, theirs is a realistic partnership. Conflict arises when Thornhill sees an opportunity to acquire land at no cost and set up as a farmer and trader in order to make his fortune more quickly. In keeping with her sensible nature, Sal is more cautious and tries to quash her husband’s enthusiasm.
Thornhill gets his way and as a result comes into close contact with the local indigenous community. Gradually he begins to see them as people who live differently but have similarities with him and his family. He moves from a position of hatred and suspicion to one of grudging respect and curiosity. Grenville sets up an intriguing dynamic between the Thornhill family and their indigenous neighbours, making all of the anxiety and discomfort that of the Thornhills. They are the incomers but, despite having the white sense of entitlement, lack the confidence to act on their conquering instincts. The locals are locals, at one with the land, and have no reason to believe that they have anything to prove. It made an interesting contrast to the way Mullumbimby reveals how more than two hundred years of subjugation has impacted on indigenous Australian culture and how the Aboriginal peoples are trying to work their way back to their traditions and their stewardship of the land.
The scene where Thornhill returns from a haulage trip to find all of his white neighbours in his hut made me think of the way white people ‘other’ those they are afraid of. The conversation about the way the indigenous people charm and distract the white immigrants in order to take their crops and their property reminded me of the conversations held in the public domain about the way European and other economic migrants come to Britain and take the jobs of the native population or claim benefits they haven’t earned. The Australian indigenous people are viewed by the white immigrants as lazy, thieving savages too indolent to work. Even though many of those transported are there because they’ve employed the same distractions in order to thieve back home. They did it because there was no way to make a decent living. The Aboriginal people are doing it because the land is theirs and they hold ancestral rights that take precedence over those of incomers squatting on their territory.
Tensions rise and the behaviour of some of the whites meets with disapproval from Sal, causing a rift in the immigrant community. The Thornhills experience a moment of peace before conflict with the indigenous people brings home to them how isolated they are. Sal demands that they leave before worse can happen, but Thornhill recognises that, for him, escape isn’t so simple.
He knew his place now, by day and by night, knew how it behaved in rain and wind, under sun and under moon. He thought his way along all those green reaches of the river, those gold and grey cliffs, the whistle of the river-oaks, that sky.
He remembered how it had been that first night, the fearsome strangeness of the place. Those cold stars had become old friends: the Cross, nearly as good as the Pole to steer a course by, the Pointers, and the Frying-pan, which was nothing more than Orion, only upside down. He could tell over the bends of the Hawkesbury the way he had once been able to tell over the bends of the Thames.
It seemed that he had become another man altogether. Eating the food of this country, drinking its water, breathing its air, had remade him, particle by particle. This sky, those cliffs, that river were no longer the means by which he might return to some other place. This was where he was: not just in body but in soul as well.
The only way he can think of to persuade Sal to stay is to participate in the slaughter of the indigenous community. Grenville does not shy away from the brutality of the massacre, the indiscriminate violence, the ugliness of the men who commit the atrocity. It was the hardest part of the book to read, but also the most compelling. I couldn’t look away from the scenes she painted. And afterwards, I felt sad that Thornhill got to enjoy the life he had dreamed of, that he learned nothing from the shock and horror he felt as the slaughter happened, that all he retained was a slightly uncomfortable feeling that his gains weren’t entirely justifiable.
Intellectually, this was an excellent book, documenting a different history to the one the British colonials hold on to. Coincidentally, Taika Waititi tweeted about Australia Day while I was reading this book, and recommended Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe as a good way to understand what actually happened when the British colonised Australia. It’s now on my wishlist.
Emotionally, though, I found it hard to love any of the characters. This was mainly because the people who are given most attention by Grenville aren’t at all likeable, and the people I was most interested in weren’t given enough development as characters, but also because there was no real depth to any of them. I didn’t feel any convincing passion from anybody in the small group of people who are the key players in the story. I wanted to know more about Thomas Blackwood, the character who has chosen to live among the indigenous people. I wanted to find out what Dick Thornhill, one of Will and Sal’s children, experienced when he went to play with the Aboriginal children and learn bushcraft, and what he thought about them as people. Most of all, I wanted to know more about the indigenous people. What were their real names, what did they think about and talk about. Grenville shows that they want to have a dialogue with Thornhill, and their acceptance of Dick suggests that they are open to welcoming the newcomers if they are willing to approach them as equals. And yet nothing of that nature is explored.
As is probably appropriate, the landscape is the most engaging character. The way Grenville describes its inhospitality, its ability to conceal and confuse, its power to overwhelm those who don’t know it. Australia is a strange land. I’ve never visited, only experienced it through films, books and TV shows. There seems to me to be a difference about it that stems from its nature as a landmass, its early separation from Gondwana, its differently evolved species, and the early arrival of humans in the first wave of dispersal from central Africa. Grenville captures this difference in the way the white immigrants struggle with the landscape and try to tame it, as well as in the way the indigenous people are one with the land. This was my favourite aspect of the book.
I’m glad that I’ve read it. It was tough, but it feels worthwhile to have got through it.