The Secret River by Kate Grenville
One of my favorite novels of this year. Kate Grenville is Australian and a couple of years ago I read her The Idea of Perfection and liked it too. This one has an interesting background. Grenville researched her ancestors, among them a waterman from London who arrived in Syndey as a convict at the beginning of the 19th century and settled along the Hawksbury River where he farmed but also transported crops to Sydney and manufactured goods back to the settlers along the river. Grenville became particularly interested in the encounters between the settlers and the Aboriginals. She wanted to understand the Aboriginal way of life and even went to live with some who lived the traditional life in a still-isolated spot, assuming, not doubt rightly, that the urban Aboriginals of modern Sydney would not give her much clue to their ancestors’ lives along the Hawksbury 200 years ago. Altogether she researched settlements along the Hawksbury, Aboriginals living at the time, and also in London from whence came most of the convicts who became settlers.
Granville originally intended to write a non-fiction book, but at some point decided to make it fiction, that is, not to write about her actual ancestor, but to base her main character loosely on him. The result of all her research is, to me, the way novelists ought to use history. She writes a third person narrative, keeping the point of view that of William Thornhill, who, in bad times, was tempted into theft, caught and sentenced to hang. A plea for mercy, citing his otherwise honest career and his need to support a wife currently pregnant and an existing child, is honored and he’s transported instead, with his family.
The novel is fast moving, and the author has a comfortable command of the details of time and place. Nowhere does she stop and use her research to characterize a time or a place, but her knowledge is sure and the background details that creep naturally into her text feel right. The novel covers William Thornhill’s early life in Bermondsey, his trial and transportation (without getting side-tracked by the trials of the nearly year-long voyage), his experiences in the Syndey Cove settlement, and the move to the Hawksbury where he encounters the Aborginals who already live there. We see Thornhill as a strong man who is not naturally brutal, one who’s hardened by a hard life but willing to defend himself, even break the law, when his family and way of life are threatened. We see his wife Sal, who is, in many ways, Will’s moral center, whose 2nd son is born on the voyage and followed quickly by two more and a daughter and who is not nearly so enthusiastic about the land Thornhill has fallen in love with on the Hawksbury. Partly it's her fear of the isolation and the Aboriginals, but it's also her homesickness. Increasingly it becomes apparent that there will be trials building a home in such and isolated place as well as confrontations with the Aboriginals.
There’s been some controversy in Australia about this book. One historian criticized her for writing a book with a “liberal point of view” by which he seems to mean creating a character who feels compassion for the Aboriginals being replaced. Here’s John Hirst from an article in The Australian from last March. He says,
"She told the ABC: 'You want to go back 200 years and say to thesettlers, "Look, this is how the Aborigines are", and to theAborigines, "Look, this is why settlers are behaving the way they are. Let's understand this. There's no need for all this brutality".'
"Here is the liberal faith that conflict comes from misunderstanding. Actually, had Aborigines understood the settlers' intentions earlierthere would have been more violence and sooner. The settlers werefortunate in that the Aborigines often at first welcomed them oravoided them or attempted to accommodate them."
So Hirst complains that Grenville’s main character is more compassionate towards the Aboriginals than is realistic. I’m sure it’s true that Grenville has chosen to focus her novel on a subject of interest of her contemporary readers and is more interested in the compassionate emancipist than in the ones who cut off the hands and ears of Aboriginals and tied up Aboriginal women to service them. Novelists do write for their own contemporaries and main characters in novels are more often the odd person out than they are typical. I believe that’s the novelist’s job, to speak to contemporary issues. If they deal with history it’s probably better not to distort history, but a novelist can choose to focus on a particular type of character with attitudes that are different from most of his contemporaries, and need not, like many an historical profile, focus on the “typical settler along the Hawksbury” in any respect. As literature, this is a very good book. Grenville didn’t intend it as history; much as the history interested her, she chose to write a novel.