The Secret River is a story of European colonisation of Australia in the 18th century, focusing around William Thornhill. He works as a boatman in London and is set to hang for stealing from the boats in the docks. He is offered an opportunity to live, but must be exiled to Sydney, Australia in order to live in the colonies. Once there, William soon discovers that a man can make much for himself in this growing colony and accepts new opportunities that he never hoped to encounter. The strongest of these is to own his own home, or in the case of Australia, to have a land to call his own. This deep desire is rooted throughout the whole novel and sets William in close quarters with the Native Aboriginals.
What makes The Secret River exceptionally balanced is that we learn about William’s tough, starving life as a boy and how he is considered a ‘good man’. He struggles to provide for his family and the relationship between him and his wife is a pleasure to read. They are as equals, which is somewhat hard to believe considering the times but she is also his confident and they have an incredibly honest relationship. When they move to Australia, William is put under her care as he is now a prisoner, which leads to some lovely interactions.
The main thrust of the novel focuses on William’s quest to find a true home for himself and his family. The instant he sees the land he wishes to claim, he can think of nothing else. From then on, the story becomes a tragedy for the modern reader as the inevitable occurs. Wiliam resists becoming part of the mob mentality, those that seek to destroy and rape the natives into submission. Grenville conveys the many reasons why a European would be made to feel threatened by those that had lived their for thousands of years and, sadly, to achieve his goals William begins the teetering moral descent that seems inevitable. I don’t feel that this is a spoiler for the novel, the moment you hear about historical fiction involving Europeans and Aborigines it’s pretty certain how it’s going to play out. What is interesting is the development of William’s character and his exchanges with the whites and blacks, the pack mentality that develops.
Created when Grenville was looking into her own family history, this novel has a sad ending but manages to be remarkably uplifting through most of the book thanks to enjoyable characters, a wonderful relationship between husband and wife, plus William is an excellent narrator and I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn more about how Europeans left convicts to colonise Australia. Heartfelt, bitter and encompassing the globe, The Secret River is an amazing read.