The “blurb” for The Secret River compares it to both Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, and this is somewhat puzzling to me. The similarities seem tenuous at best: Grenville’s novel certainly isn’t a Victorian pastiche, nor is it set in the late nineteenth century. By some long stretch of the imagination you might call it a hybrid of the two, but it would remain a rather tricky connection. Far better to say that it is a vividly evocative and well-crafted historical novel in its own right, sans comparative baggage - a sensual and moving account of the experiences of a family of “convict” settlers in early nineteenth century Australia. Grenville won the Orange Prize in 2001 for her last novel, The Idea of Perfection (which I haven’t read yet, although I mooched it this last week), and I’m pretty confident that this book, her seventh, will make the Booker Prize shortlist. [Note: I began writing this post straight after I’d read the book several weeks ago, and ‘lo, my prediction was proved right.]
It begins with a confrontation between one William Thornhill, formerly a Waterman on the Thames but more recently a convict transportee, and an Aborigine tribesman on the outskirts of Sydney, c. 1807. In a moment that frames the themes of the novel, the two men face each other and shout equivalent words back and forth: Be off. Be off. Go to the Devil. Both are puzzled (and probably frightened) by the fierce vitriolic possessiveness of the other; both feel equally justified in laying claim to the spot they’re standing on. Thornhill, worn out from his transportation and heart-sick for home, has been stripped of everything except “the dirt under his bare feet, his small grip on this unknown place. He had nothing but that…. He was not about to surrender [it] to any naked black man.” The black man says nothing about his own claim to belong, but later, toward the end of the novel, Grenville has another Aborigine express his feelings well enough:
‘Jack slapped his hand on the ground so hard a puff of dust flew up and wafted away. This me, he said. My place. He smoothed the dirt with his palm so it left a patch… Sit down hereabouts.’
At its heart this is what The Secret River is: a deeply evocative and sympathic narrative of colonial confrontation - about a meeting of two cultures, with two divergent ways of understanding ownership and belonging, in a very hard and unforgiving landscape.
William Thornhill is born into the worst kind of poverty in late eighteenth century London. His father works “at the cotton mill, the maltings, the tanneries, nowhere for very long…”, while his mother and older sisters sew shrouds for extra pennies. Nevertheless, the Thornhill family, forever growing, is always hungry:
“And always cold. There was a kind of desperation to it, a fury to be warm. In the winter his feet were stones on the end of his legs. At night he and the others lay shivering on the mouldy straw, scratching at the fleas and the bedbugs, full of their blood, that nipped them through their rags.
He had eaten the bedbugs more than once.”
Stealing is simply a way of life, something that is inevitable and necessary for survival. This remains true even after William is taken on as an apprentice Waterman by the father of his sweetheart Sarah (Sal for short) – the profits from ferrying people and products up and down the Thames are simply not enough to live on, no matter how fast and skilled the man in the boat. Not long after Sal gives birth to their first child, little Willie, William is caught smuggling expensive timbers from a cargo he is ferrying and is subsequently sentenced, along with his young family, to “transportation to New South Wales for the term of his natural life”.
After nine months separated from each other in the terrible belly of a ship, Will is reunited with Sal only to find he has a second son (born in Cape Town harbour) to care for in the alien land in which he finds himself. For the first few months they do little but fantasise about returning to London and to the life they have previously known, but slowly and steadily they begin to settle. Sal, ever resourceful, opens a rum house and, as the years pass, Will gets work with Thomas Blackwood, an “emacipist” (freed convict), who ferries goods up and down the Hawkesbury River to the settler-farmers along its branches. During one of these expeditions Will sees a piece of land, “shaped like a thumb” and fertile as any river flat, that sets off a “confusion of wanting” in him. Learning from Blackwood that a man might get himself a whole one hundred acres if he can scrape the money to buy a pardon from the Governor, he goes back to Sydney full of dreams of landed wealth and success:
“He let himself imagine it: standing on the crest of that slope, looking down over his own place. Thornhill’s Point. It was a piercing hunger in his guts: to own it. To say mine, in a way he had never been able to say mine about anything at all. He had not known until this minute that it was something he wanted so much.”
A year or so later he returns to the place with a pardon and chit of ownership in hand, Sal and their children (now a total of four boys and a baby girl) in tow, to make a new life as a farmer.
What Will doesn’t take into account as he clears trees from “Thornhill’s Point” ready for planting, or as he builds his family a little hut, is that the land he “owns” is already inhabited, and has been for a very long time. Soon enough, however, the difficulty is made clear and the Thornhills find themselves sharing their pleasant riverbank spot with a camp of Aborigine families. Neither party feels secure: the “blacks” seem angry at the whites’ presence, gesturing that the land is theirs, while Thornhill is frustrated by their refusal to recognise his legal papers of ownership:
“Thornhill gestured at the cliffs, the river glinting between the trees. My place now, he said. You got all the rest. He drew a square on the air with his arms, demonstrating where his hundred acres began and ended. In the scheme of things, his was surely an insignificant splinter of this immense place of New South Wales.”
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, settlers are clashing with groups of tribesmen in fits and starts of violent misunderstanding. Some emancipists in particular are keen to solve the indigenous problem all together, once and for all, and William is eventually forced to decide whether he will move his family back to Sydney or stay and firmly lay claim to his piece of Australia.
What follows is rather inevitable given what we understand about the colonial experience, and what we know about the future of Aboriginal peoples. But Grenville is a gifted, subtle stylist and does a very sensitive job of showing the mutual misinterpretations and misapprehensions that lead inexorably up to conflict and tragedy. More importantly, although the book betrays her very strong sense of the injustice perpetrated against the Aborigines, she doesn’t tint a simple, moral landscape. She conveys very well the ways in which her white and black protagonists are forced into their patterns of behaviour, both by their cultural expectations and by their circumstances. She foregrounds failures in communication, couching the novel’s interactions between settlers and indigenous peoples in terms of silences, broken language and wordless cries; even their shared experiences – of pain and death, or laughter – are expressed variantly, almost entirely alienated one from the other.
The main narrative is told from the view point of Thornhill and never from the Aborigine perspective, which is a powerful and right choice. It means that although our modern sensibilities pick up the points at which Will, Sal and the other settlers wrongly interpret indigenous behaviours, we are always aware of their perspective. So it’s clear that while Will’s repeated assertion that the Aborigines don’t “own” their land or hunting grounds (because they don’t “work them”) is wrong, his position is an understandable one. He simply does not (can not?) comprehend their hunter-gatherer lifestyle; to him it seems like laziness and exploitation. When they come and gather his corn, he can only interpret it as “stealing” and condemn it as a signal of congenital criminality on their part.
It helps, of course, that of all the settlers, the Thornhills try the hardest and longest to absorb and accept their strange neighbours. Sal, on visiting their camp, has an epiphany about their right to remain there: she realises they belong there just as she belonged in London. And Thornhill is a gentle man by nature, not given to violence, hasty action or cruelty, although he is brusque and ingenuous too. Not one for comprehending any of the great subtleties of his emotions, he is often confused by his own impulses and while his attempts at exchanges with the tribes’ people may be well meaning they are also clumsy and deeply condescending; he treats their nakedness as something bestial and their lack of English as a backwardness. It is this that eventually confirms the wall between them and fuels later animosity: he has few coping strategies and no sense of common ground. What he does knows is that he loves his wife - their relationship is built on the solid basis of physicality and deep emotional attachment – and that he has a duty to protect his family. Life has dealt him poor cards and he makes choices based on this limited scope of what is important and what 'matters'.
Vitally, The Secret River is not a narrative about intellectual or exceptional individuals; there are no heroes or heroic scenarios. Its characters are thoroughly ordinary, some worse then they should or could be and some better. Grenville’s sharp portrait of these people and their struggles with and against one another, is always fair to them, always willing to reach out and make the effort of communicative understanding that it’s characters cannot make. It is poignantly self-aware (Grenville herself is, after all, Australian) and finely balanced, a very moving tribute to both sides of a poor circumstance:
“Thornhill felt a pang. No man had worked harder than he had done, and he had been rewarded for his labour. He had about him near a thousand pounds in cash, he had three hundred acres and a piece of paper to prove it was all his, and that fine house with stone lions on the gateposts. His children wore boots and he was never without a chest of best Darjeeling in the house. He would have said that he had everything a man could want.
But there was an emptiness as he watched Jack’s hand caressing the dirt. This was something he did not have: a place that was part of his flesh and spirit. There was no part of the world he would keep coming back to, the way Jack did, just to feel it under him.”