Grenville, Kate: The Secret River

Introducing the book, the proposer said that he had come across it when looking for Australian books to take with him on a journey to Australia. His initial choice – Tom Keneally’s “A Commonwealth of Thieves” – was a hardback that was too heavy for travel, and hence he had turned to Kate Grenville’s 2005 book. “Secret River” had been short-listed for the Booker prize, and by 2006 had won seven prizes, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Kate Grenville was born in Sydney in 1950, and after various jobs, including in the film industry, took an MBA in creative writing in 1980. Since then she had published six novels and various other books.

She had taken five years to write the book, and had published a memoir about the process “Searching for the Secret River”. She had started off by doing family research, and the novel had grown out of her interest in her great, great, great grandfather. Much of the work was based on him. (He had made a lot of money in the early days of Australia, and had been buried in top hat and tails with sovereigns in his mouth. However, the next generation had squandered all the wealth). Some of the phrases given as speech to characters in the novel are taken verbatim from historical records. In her research she had found out a lot about the convicts, but there were very few historical records dealing with the aborigines.

The proposer had liked the book, finding it an easy read (if occasionally long-winded) with a solid central character in William Thornhill. He liked the human side of Thornhill, and the depiction of his relationship with his wife. The book explored moral issues for Australia – what is a crime, how should you treat criminals, is land ownership a right or a privilege, and can you defend your land?

Another recent visitor to Australia had also liked the book, finding it had a lot of resonance. It dealt with two big themes of Australian literature – how to come to terms with their convict past, and how to come to terms with the Aborigines. Australians were only now coming to terms with episodes such as the slaughter of Aborigines depicted in the book.

Another member, forwarding views with difficulty from a leftish quarter of Naples, also liked the book. Although it started “like a girly novel”, and was too “well-written” and lacking in mystery, it ended powerfully. It was rich in themes: love, race, class, ownership, and colonialism. These were all great themes, and all explored in one novel. Like Germans, the Australians have started to confront their murky past. Did they really use arsenic to wipe out the natives? However, the novel had a happy ending, at least on the surface, which might make it more acceptable to the Australian reader.

Others agreed on the literary qualities of the book, and could see how it would hit a nerve with the Australians. On the other hand, it did not seriously examine the Aborigines – it only looked at them as they were perceived by the convicts. Bruce Chatwin’s “The Songlines” by contrast had been a serious engagement with the Aborigines several years previously.

The writer was not a political novelist – she was interested in the human drama and the human reactions to the events. The book worked at two levels. At one level it was a rattling good yarn of a man making his way in the world, and reaching a decisive moment in the conflict with the Aborigines, which shaped him and his relationship with his wife. At a deeper level, it was about who you are, what it is to be human, and what property is – deep themes indeed.

Was Thornhill a hero or a villain? The whole book was seen through his eyes, even when he steals. Once he gains a position above other convicts, the convicts call him “Mr Thornhill”, and he accepts the name without demur. Indeed he accepts the whole value system which once had him at the bottom of the heap. He is almost an anti-hero. Admittedly he was reluctant to attack the Aborigines, and one does sympathise with him, but he had no right to do what he did. And he is shown to be left with a feeling of hollowness at the end. He is both hero and villain. Perhaps the character of Blackwood – who gets closest to the Aborigines – was the real hero.

On the other hand, it was a harsh environment, and surely it was not appropriate to apply our moral standards? Admittedly there was the Dickensian portrayal of London in the early part of the book (which some, but not all, found rather false – the emphasis was on everything that was different, not on what was the same). But Thornhill seemed to be portrayed with a twentieth century morality and conscience. He feels awkward in his dealings with Blackwood, and feels guilt at hitting an Aborigine. And Blackwood seems to be a very twentieth century figure, who echoes Mr Kurtz of “Heart of Darkness” in some of his actions (but not in the judgement made of him).

Another reader felt that the book was written as a sort of moral thesis – how do you reconcile the historical fact of theft and murder with the fact that it was your ancestor who did it? It seemed to be an attempt to prove that to know all is to forgive all – to show that any reasonable man might have behaved the same way in the difficult circumstances of the time. Even without knowing the personal background to Grenville’s novel, that sense of “un roman à thèse” came through.

And the novel failed to convince that Thornhill’s behaviour was always reasonable. It seemed to exaggerate in suggesting that the choice in London for the lower orders was starvation or theft – the theft of a cargo of valuable timber (which apparently was what her ancestor was convicted of) was more venal than simply fending off starvation. However, the treatment of the aborigine murder was subtler, with the hero himself feeling his happiness was tainted at the end. The author towards the end subtly – and maybe unconsciously – distanced herself from her protagonist. For example, he was shown to manipulate his wife’s wish to go home. In a sense the persona of the author was an “unreliable narrator”.

Some felt that several characters were caricatures. On the other hand, “Smasher”, the most evil of the characters, had a grotesque energy that was reminiscent of Dickens at his best.

A lot of our discussion focussed on the rights and wrongs of the behaviour of the different characters in the lead up to the Aborigine massacre, which was the moral crux of the novel. The detail is not recorded here, but the interest showed how this scene had gripped the imagination.

There was some mystery in the book in the behaviour of the Aborigines. Why did the normally nomadic group decide to stay for six months? Was there a seasonal pattern to their movements? Was it related to ceremonies that had to be carried out? However, the book did not convey a strong sense of the passage of time.

While it was fairly obvious that the opening section of the book set in London was the work of a female author, that was not true of the subsequent section set in Australia. She handled convincingly the description of violence, and the psychology of the mob.

We felt that the novel compared well with “The Colour” by Rose Tremaine, another popular recent book set in New Zealand with a similar theme, which had been criticised in New Zealand for its poor research. Other Australian books which members recommended were “Death of a River Guide” and “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” by the Tasmanian Richard Flanigan, and “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes. The forthcoming Australian film festival at the Filmhouse was recommended, and in particular a superb Aboriginal film “Ten Canoes”.

The novel provoked wide-ranging discussion of related issues. Modern Australians tended to glory in – and perhaps sentimentalise – their convict past. This was reflected in the novel’s portrayal of life in London at that time as one of theft or starvation.

Australians also liked to link their “larrikin” culture to the convicts. However, in this case the novel correctly showed that the ex-convicts had sought respectability rather than glorying in their past. The anti-English chippiness of modern Australian culture could more plausibly be traced to large-scale Irish immigration than to the legacy of the convicts.

A feature of the novel was Thornhill’s wife’s obsession with returning home. However, in practice few convicts were allowed to make the long journey. There are a few examples of such returning convicts in literature – Magwitch in “Great Expectations”, and a couple of Sherlock Holmes characters.

The Aborigines had been beyond comprehension for the early settlers. They were hunter-gatherers, unlike the Maoris, who were farmers. It had been easier to deal with the Maoris, who had chiefs, and a treaty had been signed with the Maoris but not with the Aborigines. There had been hundreds of Aboriginal languages, whereas the Maoris had only had one, and had been able to communicate with Polynesians.

Traditionally Australian history had presented Australia as a largely empty land – only now was evidence emerging, as suggested in the novel, of large scale Aborigine resistance and large scale murder. Tragically this was a common pattern in colonial development.

An important development was the landmark “Mabo” court decision in 1992 that the Aborigines should be said to have title to land. One recent visitor had been surprised by how seriously Aboriginal rights were being taken, with for example a lot of land being set aside in the Perth area. On the other hand throughout history one people had displaced another, and there was not normally an attempt at restitution.

The Aborigines wished to preserve their traditional way of life, and were thus often seen as “skivers” judged by the values of white Australia. Like the Japanese they were unable to metabolise alcohol, and often appeared drunk. A good example of such cultural misunderstanding between the two communities followed a few days after the Book Group discussion, with the withdrawal of aboriginal rights by the Australian government based on a different view of the appropriate age of consent and on the behaviour of Aborigines under the influence of alcohol.