Friday, December 12, 2008

The Secret River

The Secret River by Kate Grenville was originally published in 2005. My paperback copy has 334 pages. Wonder Boy was assigned this last year in one of his college honor's English classes and I nabbed it out of his "to be sold" pile in order to read it for myself. First I must say it is a well written novel with a compelling story. As a winner of the Orange Prize, 2006 Commonwealth prize, and 2006 Man Booker finalist, Grenville certainly has the literary awards to back up the accolades for her work. The Secret River is apparently based on the story of Grenville's ancestors. The novel is divided up into six parts: Part one, London; Part two, Sydney; Part Three, A Clearing in the Forest; Part Four, A Hundred Acres; Part Five, Drawing a Line; Part Six, The Secret River and Mr. Thornhill's Villa.

History is said to be composed of various groups of people conquering other groups of people. While atrocities were committed and have been committed around the world everywhere during various conquests, it is troubling when they are judged and evaluated using modern values and beliefs. Time changes the way we view things and many of our current, well intentioned actions today could very well be viewed as barbaric in the future. It's for that reason that I don't appreciate novels that politicized historical events.

Grenville does walk a fine line near what could very easily be described as some minor revisionist history when, while explaining the actions and motives of her character, she bases his actions on current values. I would have respected her more as a writer if she had simply stated the facts and had Thornhill act as a man in his position at that time would have acted, sans any inner turmoil. I fully believe that at that time in history Thornhill would have done anything to protect his family and his claim on the land. Even the publisher pandered to revisionist, politicized history when they describe Thornhill as having to, "ally himself with the most despicable of the white settlers". This leaves me feeling conflicted. While Grenville wrote a fine, noteworthy novel in The Secret River, I'm not too keen on even any minor "preaching after the fact" in a novel. It is for this reason alone that I am giving The Secret River a rating of 4.5.

Synopsis from cover:
In 1806 William Thornhill, an illiterate English bargeman and a man of quick temper but deep compassion, steals a load of wood and, as a part of his lenient sentence, is deported, along with his beloved wife, Sal, to the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia. The Secret River is the tale of William and Sal's deep love for their small exotic corner of the new world, and William's gradual realization that if he wants to make a home for his family, he must forcibly take the land from the people who came before him. Acclaimed around the world, The Secret River is a magnificent, transporting work of historical fiction."

"The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year." opening sentence

"He had died once, in a manner of speaking. He could easily die again. He had been stripped of everything already: he had only the dirt under his bare feet, his small grip on this unknown place." pg. 6

"In the rooms where William Thornhill grew up, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, no one could move an elbow without hitting the wall or the table or a sister or a brother." pg. 9

"He heard her humming as she went about her tasks. She could not keep a tune, but for Thornhill that wavering melody became the sound of his new life." pg. 40

"What point could there be to hoping, when everything could be broken so easily?" pg. 45

"Meaning that your wife has the pleasure of a voyage along with you, Thornhill....And may God have mercy on her soul!" pg. 71

"It was a sad scrabbling place, this town of Sydney. The old hands called it The Camp, and in 1806 that was pretty much still what it was: a half-formed temporary sort of place." pg. 75

"He knew he would make a good rich man, having so much practice as a poor one." pg. 87

"Tales came back of men speared, their huts robbed, their fields burnt. The Gazette had a handy expression that covered all the things the blacks did, and suggested others: outrages and depredations." pg. 95

"He saw that her dreams had stayed small and cautious, being of nothing grander than the London they had left. Perhaps it was because she had not felt the rope around her neck. That changes a man forever." pg. 111


Wendy said...

Interesting perspective on this one, Lori. I had not considered the intersection of today's values with the mores of that time period...I did love this book, however - I thought sense of place and the beauty of the writing to be stellar. But, I see your point...hmmmm, will have to think about this more!

Lori L said...

It is probably for this reason alone that historical novels normally aren't my preferred reading material, Wendy. I even appreciate the nonfiction history I read to be based on the reality of the times rather than tamed down for current sensibilities. When I discussed the book with my son, he agreed with my assessment. As he said, "When the Romans conquered the Gauls each tribe was basically given the option to join them or die. The tribes that resisted were wiped out."