The Secret River
|The Secret River|
|Publisher||Text Publishing, Australia|
|Dewey Decimal||823/.914 22|
|LC Classification||PR9619.3.G73 S53 2005|
|Preceded by||The Idea of Perfection|
|Followed by||Searching for The Secret River|
The Secret River, written by Kate Grenville in 2005, is a historical fiction about an early 19th-century Englishman transported to Australia for theft. The story explores what may have happened when Europeans colonised land already inhabited by Aboriginal people. The book is also one of careful observation and vividly imagines an early Australian landscape with rich precision. The book has been compared to Thomas Keneally's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and to Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang for its style and historical theme.
The Secret River was inspired by Grenville's desire to understand "what had happened when [her ancestor, Solomon] Wiseman arrived ... [on the Hawkesbury River at the area now known as Wisemans Ferry] and started the business of 'settling'". Her inspiration to understand this came from her taking part in the 2000-05-28 Reconciliation Walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge during which she realised that she didn't know much about "what had gone on between the Aboriginal people and the settlers in those early days". Initially intended to be a work of non-fiction about Wiseman, the book eventually became a fictional work based on her research into Wiseman but not specifically about Wiseman himself. The novel took five years and twenty drafts to complete.
The novel is "dedicated to the Aboriginal people of Australia: past, present and future". Although sparking hostility from some historians it received a positive response from many Aboriginal people, Grenville has said "they recognise that the book is my act of acknowledgement, my way of saying: this is how I’m sorry".
After a childhood of poverty and petty crime in the slums of London, William Thornhill is sentenced to death for stealing wood, however, in 1806 his sentence is changed to transportation to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. With his wife Sal and children in tow, he arrives in a harsh land that feels at first like a death sentence. However, there is a way for the convicts to buy freedom and start afresh. Away from the infant township of Sydney, up the Hawkesbury River, Thornhill encounters men who have tried to do just that: Blackwood, who is attempting to reconcile himself with the place and its people, and Smasher Sullivan, whose fear of this alien world turns into brutal depravity towards it. As Thornhill and his family stake their claim on a patch of ground by the river, the battle lines between old and new inhabitants are drawn.
The early life of William Thornhill is one of poverty, depredation and criminality, which is also seen in Charles Dickens. The early settlements are described passionately by the author. Though Thornhill is a loving husband and a good father, his interactions with Indigenous inhabitants are villainous. Thornhill dreams of a life of dignity and entitlement, manifested in his desire to own land. After befriending Blackwood under his employ, Thornhill finds a patch of land he believes will meet his needs, but alas, his past comes back to haunt him. His interactions with the Aboriginal people progress from fearful first encounters to (after careful observation) appreciation. The desire for him to own the land contrasts with his wife wanting to return to England. The clash is one between a group of people desperate for land and another for whom the concept of ownership is bewildering.
Literary significance and criticism
While the story has a morality theme, it is treated subtly by the author. It is not a predictable one of right and wrong, but one of fear and ignorance. This is a fine novel of colonial life and of "the tragedy of the confrontation between Aborigine and white settler". Though the book does not give an insight into the minds of the Aborigines, it goes into great depth in the troubled mind of the main character. The book is a powerful, highly credible account of how a limited man of good instincts becomes involved in enormity and atrocity.
Grenville further explores at book end, that even though the extermination of the 'blacks' had occurred to a degree- William Thornhill never feels at peace with his conscience. “They will only be seen when they want you to see them”. The “blacks”, as they are referred to in Kate Grenville’s novel, The Secret River, are depicted as reappearing and disappearing into the looming darkness of the colonial settlement. Attempting to resist the fierce smothering caused by the English settlers, the various dialects of the Indigenous population seem to slowly disappear, but not without numerous confrontations, as if a night fading into a new horizon. At the readers' final glimpse of Thornhill's Place, the setting is characterised by industrialised farming and the destruction of land. Yet, the mystery of their existence influences William until death.
Searching for the Secret River
Grenville followed up The Secret River with a non-fiction book titled Searching for the Secret River in which she describes both the research she undertook into the history behind the book and her writing process. She chronicles how she changed from her original plan of writing a non-fiction book about her great-great-great-grandfather, Solomon Wiseman, to writing a fictional work. Reviewer Stella Clarke writes that "Searching for the Secret River records Grenville's five-year journey to the finished novel, which started out as nonfiction, moved from first to third person, through exhaustive dissections and revolutions, before completion. It is education in the art, and craft, of fiction, a lesson in the arduous devotion it can command. Yet is [sic] much more than a quite unbelievably generous 'invitation into her writing room'. It is a courageous public scrutiny of her motives".
Use in curricula
The Secret River is a text used for the Victorian Certificate of Education Year 12 English course. It is also used for the Western Australian TEE course through Secondary school. The University of Sydney distributed 7000 copies of The Secret River to enrolling first-year students in January 2011 as part of the inaugural 'First-Year Book Club', which aims to bring students together to discuss and debate big ideas around a common theme.
Awards and nominations
- FAW Christina Stead Award, 2005: joint winner
- Commonwealth Writers Prize, South East Asia and South Pacific Region, Best Book, 2006: winner
- Commonwealth Writers Prize, 2006: winner
- Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2006: shortlisted
- New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, Community Relations Commission Award, 2006: winner
- New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, 2006: winner
- Nita Kibble Literary Award, 2006: shortlisted
- Booksellers Choice Award, 2006: winner
- Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA), Australian Book of the Year, 2006: winner
- Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA), Australian Literary Fiction Book of the Year, 2006: winner
- The Age Book of the Year Award, Fiction Prize, 2006: shortlisted
- Man Booker Prize, 2006: shortlisted
- Queensland Premier's Literary Awards, Best Fiction Book, 2006: shortlisted
- Victorian Premier's Literary Award, The Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, 2006: shortlisted
- Colin Roderick Award, 2005: shortlisted
- International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2007: longlisted
- Kate Grenville: Secret River, Secret Past
- Independent Online review
- Grenville, Kate (2006), "Searching for The Secret River", Text, Melbourne, ISBN 978-1-921145-39-1, p. 13
- Grenville (2006), op. cit., p. 12
- "The Secret River". One Hundred Objects Exhibition. State Library of NSW. Retrieved 2013-02-14.
- Grenville (2005), The Secret River, Dedication page
- John McCallum (14 January 2013). "Deeply moving evocation of a tragic conflict in The Secret River | The Australian". News Limited. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
- Lloyd Bradford Syke (17 January 2013). "REVIEW: The Secret River (Sydney Festival) | Sydney Theatre | Curtain Call". Retrieved 24 January 2013.
- Fantastic Fiction review
- The Observer review
- The Quarterly Conversation review
- The Guardian review
- Scotland on Sunday review
- The Age review
- New Statesman review
- Clarke, Stella (2005) "Searching for the Secret River", in The Australian, 2005-10-07
- VCAA Bulletin, February 2008
- 2005 National Literary Awards
- Booksellers Choice Awards 2006
- Austlit Newsletter August/September 2006