Book Review – The Secret River by Kate Grenville

The Secret River by Kate Grenville cover

I’ve just finished this book, and enjoyed it quite a lot! It was great to know the story was historically accurate, and to gain insight into what happened when white man first started living in Australia; it’s a book very much about race relations, and haunting. It’s a raw place in the psyche of Australia and Kate herself explains her book best here. This article in itself is a wonderful read!

I’ve spent a bit of time in the Hawksbury region north of Sydney, so references to the geography, topography, landscape… had an extra meaning for me. Kate is very descriptive and captures the essence well to how I perceive the area.

The Secret River follows the life of an English couple in the early 1800’s; he is sentenced to Australia and his wife follows him. As a freeman, he eventually selects and squats a piece of land along the Hawkesbury River – land the Australian native people still live on. The novel follows their journey and experiences, depicting attitudes of the time, inner conflicts and passions.

It was interesting to note the planting of the bulbs by the native people in the riverbank and how that untrue statement they never had agriculture was known to be untrue, even  back in early settlement. Kate doesn’t mince words with the massacres and atrocities committed against the original owners of this land. There are added nuances of the main characters being at odds – Thornhill wants to stay on his land, however his wife wants to return to London. He realises they would be outcasts there, whereas staying they has social status and a chance to earn a living. There is the conflict of realising the native people are people, just like they are. It’s an intense book, but engaging and very readable.

I related to the characters as authentic and believable. There’s haunting aspects in the story – the gulf between two cultures and sheer injustice…. the rock carving beneath the house, in time to be forgotten, as in time the ethical choices and decisions made to enable habitation and settlement were hidden and forgotten too. Questions about relationship with the land, and the concept of ‘give and take’ take on a deeper meaning as one traverses the pages of this story, as well as insight into class attitudes during the era.  I think it’s important to consider the lives and experiences of early colonialism to further appreciate issues today that still linger. It was my great grandparent’s great grandparents who were part of the First Fleet setting up camp here – and the impact on the people already living there was disastrous.

The Secret River delivers an experience alongside the history and will leave you pondering after that last page is closed. An excellent read!

You can read more on the Wiki page here.

The ABC also did a series for screen here.

Crikey did a review on the stage version here.

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