Book Review: The Secret River, by Kate Grenville (AWW Challenge 2013)
Posted on November 2, 2013
Warning: This is a bit of a ramble through the Australian literary bush, and suitable more for people who’ve already read the book, who may wish to compare notes. These are my reflections after finishing The Secret River, and they are not intended for readers trying to decide whether or not to read it. If that’s your only reason for looking at my review, then my advice is yes, read it, but don’t read my review any further.
Warning Two: Here there be plot spoilers.
This book is subtly and skilfully executed, and Grenville has a beautiful way with description. Let me say that again: Grenville has a beautiful way with description. She is a gorgeous writer. I have lived in Australia for nearly a decade, and have spent a fair amount of time rambling through its bushlands, its hills, its stark arid regions, and along its rivers and coasts. Yet, she brings it home to me fresh, vivid, and awash with light and colour.
Some reviewers have said that they read Grenville’s work as though the outcome were inevitable. In one sense, that is true, because we know the history of how the Aborigines fared against the colonialists, and we cannot change that. However, within the context of this novel, I did not feel that the events depicted (specifically, the horrific actions of the white English settlers against the Aboriginal peoples) were inevitable at all. Regardless of the cultural ignorance of the settlers, which was vast, they had ample opportunity to learn about the Indigenous Australians as they lived in close proximity to them over months and years. In the book, by the time the white settlers descend as a violent mob upon the Aborigines, the reader is aware that they fully understand the moral implications of their actions. That is made quite clear in Grenville’s writing. Acting blindly, without understanding, does not make for much of a story. The fact that they do understand, but act anyway, is what is morally compelling here.
Throughout their lives, we see that the main character, Thornhill, and his wife, Sal, make careful and strategic decisions every step of the way, from their desperate beginnings in London to their final settlement along the Hawkesbury River. They talk things out, and think about them, and agree upon a way forward before acting. This is how they are as a couple, and how they manage to survive together through terrible times. They are uneducated and unrefined people, but they are not stupid, and they are capable of love for one another, and affection for their fellow men. Even in the bleakest of circumstances, Grenville shows us that they always have choices.
The one choice that they fail to make, towards the end of the book, is the most crucial: to leave the bush to the Indigenous people and return to one of the towns to live. Sal tries to persuade her husband to leave the land, but he is in thrall to his vision of “Thornhill’s Place”, and turns to violence to resolve the crisis: first violence towards Sal, to whom he is usually gentle and tender, and then violence against the Aborigines, whom he believes stand in the way of his dreams. Had they returned to one of the towns, Thornhill could still have worked his trade as a river man, and Sal and the children would have been safe there. He may not have become a rich landowner, but he might have saved his soul — metaphorically or actually, depending on one’s perspective.
Thornhill’s fatal flaw is that he fancies himself a king, despite his rough-as-guts beginnings as an impoverished, illiterate boy born and bred in the meanest, grimiest streets of London. This hunger for a kingdom comes up again and again, both directly and implicitly. As a reader, I wanted to see Thornhill become a kind of king myself. I wanted him to rise above the moral filth that surrounded him and shine as a noble soul amongst the riff raff: the mean, rough, drunk, and foul men who think the Aborigines good for nothing, except their women to rape and their corpses to fertilise the soil with blood and bone.
At the moment of truth, though, Thornhill proves himself to be a man of poor character, who has learnt nothing at all from his own past of being treated badly by men stronger and more powerful than himself. In the end, we realise that he has not risen above anything. His experiences have served only to make him as venal, callous, and grandiose as his former oppressors. He’s even worse, in fact: a vigilante murderer who has gained his wealth by the destruction of other men — the kind of status-hungry man who puts sculpted lions at his gates to claim a feeble symbolic victory over a London that could never have been his, to say to other men: Watch your step, you are on my place now. (p.316)
It is hard to love a book in which all of the main characters become lesser people than they were at the start of the story. It’s like reading Dickens backwards. In the end, the only grim satisfaction for me as a reader came in knowing that Thornhill himself could not feel his victory in his bones, because what he had lost, while ineffable, was so much greater than what he had won: For all it was what he had chosen, the bench he sat on here at times felt like punishment. He had never forgotten the narrow bench in the passage at the Waterman’s Hall, where William Thornhill had sat with dread in his heart to see whether he could become an apprentice. That bench had been part of the penance a boy paid for the chance at survival. This bench, where he could overlook all his wealth and take his ease, should have been the reward … He could not understand why it did not feel like triumph.
Of course, I know the true history of the Australian colonisation, and I know that men like Thornhill were a dime a dozen. They were not heroes, or particularly noble or nuanced in their responses to what life threw at them. They were just trying to survive, and willing to do whatever it took to achieve that. Most of them were arguably much more inclined to do the thing that would gain them resources, than they were to do the right thing morally. So, is Grenville’s story more “true to life” because it’s one in which the protagonists are only common, not noble at all? Maybe. We can’t know for sure, since Thornhill and Sal are fictional characters. But, as long as they are fictional, I would have rather seen them grow than diminish as people. I did not begrudge their will to live. In fact, I admired it enormously, up until the turning point, when they could have chosen retreat, but instead chose murder. Well, Thornhill did. Sal just wanted to save her family. That’s where Thornhill lost my sympathy entirely, though his hold on me had been tenuous for some time by then.
For about two-thirds of the novel, Sal is seen as pivotal to the action. She is wiser than Thornhill, as well as being more observant and cunning. She has great influence over him, too, so that he tends to be swayed by what she says. But even she is quite limited in her ability to imagine the “blacks” as being human, like herself. A grating example in the book is Sal’s not understanding why the Aboriginal women do not respond to her “pet” names for them: “Polly!” she called. “Oy Polly, what are youse all up to?” And took a few steps towards them, her arm ready to wave. “Poll!” But none of the women so much as glanced at her … “She don’t know her name’s Polly,” she said … “I give her that name but she don’t know that … She ain’t learned it yet.” By the time Sal does register their humanity, it is too late, for Thornhill’s sights are set on conquest, and he will kill anything or anyone that gets in his way.
There are characters in the book who do not behave like despicable trash, in their vain hopes of mimicking the lives of the landed gentry back home, whom they could never truly be, and whom they claim to hate. Yet, the settlers will not learn from their wiser kindred, even though these wiser ones get on fine with the “blacks” and do not suffer problems from living amongst them. Even Thornhill, who has reason to trust one of these smarter and nobler men, since he is the man who teaches Thornhill how to navigate the Hawkesbury and who sells him his own good boat when he retires from the river, rejects what he learns. That man to whom he should have listened is called Blackwood.
Blackwood is a wise and strong man, who takes an Indigenous woman as his wife and settles down with her. They have a child together. In his way, he tries to teach the others that it is possible to get on well with the Aborigines: “They help themselves now and then, and I turn a blind eye” (p.166); “See, them yams grown where you putting in the corn … You dig them up, they go hungry” (p.168); and “You got to work it out your own way … But when you take a little, bear in mind you got to give a little” (p.169).
Besides Blackwood, there is a woman named Mrs. Herring who lives on her own on the river and gets on well with the Aboriginal people. She does not dehumanise them, but recognises herself in them. When one of the settlers tells an outraged story about one of their own being fooled by a couple of the “blacks”, who distract the woman while a group of them robs her family’s homestead, Mrs. Herring says: “Poor booby, she were taken in just like old Mr. Barnes in Hatter’s Lane … My brother Tobias kept him gabbing at the door and I slipped in behind. Fingered a card of ribbon off his counter, got a half-crown for it later.” She puffed away, smiling. “They do got a charming way about them when they please.”
The one other person who engages with the Aborigines and who understands that they have skills and abilities to be admired and learnt from is one of Thornhill’s own sons, Dick. But young Dick suffers for his admiration by way of a beating, even though Thornhill grudgingly admits later, at least to himself, that Dick has learnt useful and remarkable skills that his father could never have taught him: how to start a fire without flint, how to throw a spear, how to move through the forest with grace and stealth, like a native animal, and how to hunt without scaring off your prey.
But, the story is not Blackwood’s, nor Mrs. Herring’s, nor Dick’s, nor mine. It belongs to Thornhill and, to a lesser degree, to Sal. And, ultimately, of course, it is Grenville’s, and this is how she chose to tell it. I respect that, whilst not necessarily enjoying reading a book where the character arc is all downhill. Truth be told, I kept hoping all the white folks would be killed off, but for Blackwood and Herring and young Dick. But, things did not go that way, either in history or in Grenville’s novel.
So, given that I found the book unsatisfying in some ways, why five stars? For engaging my compassion for the plight of the Aboriginal people in a more powerful way than I have experienced so far — outside real life — and for the truly stunning prose, I give this book five stars. And I would give it more stars if there were more to give.