The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2005 ISBN 1920885757
I kept reading this book waiting for it to "take off": it never did. I picked it up as I'd never read Kate Grenville - an award-winning writer - and the blurb seemed interesting.
Unfortunately for this book Grenville has a barrow to push, and it has affected both the story and the story telling. The book is obviously about the early destructive relations between settlers and Aboriginal Australians. The vehicle for telling the story is William Thornhill, a waterman of the Thames who is transported to New South Wales for theft. He gets his ticket-of-leave, is assigned to his wife and together they go into business in Sydney, he working for a boatman running the Hawkesbury River trade, and she as a publican. Thornhill is intrigued by the River, and soon selects one hundred acres on the River to set up his own farm.
The book then revolves around the relations of the Thornhills (and other settlers) with the local tribe, with misunderstandings leading to thefts, spearings and a terrible massacre. The massacre is the central point of the story, with the book ending decades later showing Thornhill a wealthy and successful man, sitting on his verandah searching for the Blacks that are no longer there, and contemplating his past and future.
The problem with the work is that Grenville is so set on describing the history of the treatment of the Aboriginals that she neglects to develop any of the characters. Even Thornhill himself rarely moves beyond being a cardboard cut-out, moved hither and yon by thoughts and feelings that are not clear to this reader. Portrayed as whip-smart early on, later in the work he is too dim to decipher obvious communication from the Natives. At the climax of the book, when the Aboriginals orchestrate a co-ordinated attack on the settlers farms, and Thornhill takes his speared neighbour to the hospital in Windsor, he then spends some hours in the pub while insurrection mounts and a vigilante band is formed - would he not be desperate to return to his wife and children, alone on the farm? It's unfortunate that most of the action in the book is similarly forced and woodenly written.
In some ways this book puts me in mind of the early Mad Max movies. The story is brutal, obvious and fast-moving, the landscape is beautiful, but the characters are merely figures acting in a landscape.
I think that, at approximately 350 pages, Grenville has made a bit of an error with the length of her book: it's either too long, or too short. To develop her characters more, she should have looked to Xavier Herbert. Her characters (apart from the Aborigines) are in some ways Dickensian creations, as were Herbert's, but she hasn't given them the space to fully bloom into their potential. If Grenville went down the Herbert route with her book it may have been twice as long, but would have had more to recommend it as a truly rollicking read of colonial times, while still keeping her central message intact.
If, on the other hand, Grenville cut the story back to the bone she could still get the message across by looking for inspiration from someone like Randolph Stow. She then could have produced - like he did - a polished gem of a work, where the lack of character development adds to rather than detracts from the story.
But, she didn't do either of these things, and we are left with a middle-of-the-road novel that gives us a moral, but fails to provide us with much more enjoyment than a history book. Much of the character writing is clunky, although some of the landscape description is good writing.
There is not much to like about this book, but there is little to actively dislike. It has left me flat.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell