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In 1806 William Thornhill an illiterate English bargeman and a man of uick 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


10 thoughts on “The Secret River

  1. says:

    I am an Australian of Anglo Celtic and Northern European background meaning that my ancestry is English Cornish Irish German and Danish with a bit of Scottish thrown in for good measure I was born in Sydney where I still live More than five generations of my ancestors on both sides were born in Australia This takes my roots in the country back to the early 19th century which in white Australian terms is a long time One of my ancestors was a convict transported from Ireland because he committed a petty theft There's every chance that I have than one convict ancestor My ancestors were not wealthy people They have been farmers and shopkeepers and salespeople and musicians and housepainters My family history attaches me to this place It is in my blood Even though I am resolutely urban in my background and my preferences both my parents all of my grandparents and most of my great grandparents were born within the ten kilometres or so which separates the centre of Sydney and the beaches in its eastern suburbs I am attached to the Australian landscape The high bright blue sky the beaches and the rivers the scent of gum trees and native flowers and the sound of native birds are all part of me As much as I love travelling and as much as I can appreciate other softer landscapes the one which surrounds me is the one which moves me the most For all of these reasons this is a novel which speaks to me It probably should be compulsory reading for all Australians and certainly for all Australians whose ancestors arrived in colonial times This is their story and it is in many respects an ugly one The central character William Thornhill is a boatman on the Thames who lives in grinding poverty with his wife and child In 1806 having been convicted of a theft committed to feed his family Thornhill's death sentence is commuted to transportation to the penal colony of New South Wales Over time Thornhill achieves the status of an emancipated convict and settles on a stretch of land on the Hawkesbury River In this environment he his family and other white settlers come into contact with the local indigenous inhabitants The indigenous people have no reason to leave the area just because settlers move in planting crops and building huts and fences However the fences cut off their food sources and this makes conflict inevitable Ultimately Thornhill has to decide what he is prepared to do to keep the land which has become his obsession Fundamentally the novel is about the Australian colonial experience The title has two meanings To Thornhill the Hawkesbury River is a secret river because its entrance from the bay into which it feeds is hard to find However it's also a reference to the phrase used by anthropologist W E H Stanner in a lecture in 1968 when he described the brutal acts of genocide against the indigenous people by British colonisers and the subseuent silence about these events as the secret river of blood in Australian history The narrative describes some horrific events It also suggests that these events occurred not because evil people wanted to commit unspeakable acts but because of a total lack of understanding between the white and the indigenous communities These were groups of people not simply separated by language but by their entire way of life The indigenous people had no concept of private ownership and did not build fences From the point of view of the settlers this meant that the indigenous people had no relationship with the land Nothing could be further from the truth and the colonisation of this land meant the dispossession of the original inhabitants The effects of this dispossession reverberate than 200 years later Grenville creates a strong sense of time and place While the narrative is exclusively from Thornhill's point of view she allows the reader to understand how the conflict affected both sides Just as the indigenous people had nowhere to go when their land was taken away from them poor settlers in the early days most of them like Thornhill were emancipated convicts also had nowhere to go They could not return to England and they had to make the best of what they had here For them making a living from the land was an economic imperative a matter of life and death for themselves and their families But rather than learn about the land from those who already lived there and who would have been prepared to share it they imposed their ways with devastating conseuences A few days after finishing the novel I am still haunted by it I can understand that the narrative will not have the same affect on those who are not connected to the history it tells But I feel part of that history and Grenville's work really speaks to me I almost took away a star because of a phrase which was so freuently used that it started to irritate me but that impulse subsided after I finished reading My lasting impression will be of the atmosphere Grenville created and the insight and sensitivity she demonstrated in telling the story I decided to read the novel now in anticipation of seeing this theatrical adaptation of the novel next month The play has been adapted from the novel by one of my favourite playwrights and will be directed by one of my favourite directors I'm looking forward to seeing it than ever


  2. says:

    Yes this book is admirably researched and yes the basic premise is interesting But no it is not particularly absorbing and no it is not well written I have a particular bias against writers that spend an inordinate amount of time on painstaking read painful descriptions of setting The novel is 334 pages long about 80 per cent of that is taken up with environmental minutiae or at least it felt like it Pages and pages of it then perhaps a couple of lines of dialogue hidden away in italics as if it were something to be ashamed of The characters mumble their way through the book and no one has anything of significant interest to say As a protagonist Will Thornhill is the biggest 'dumb arse' I've ever had the misfortune to come across Sure Grenville is probably being ruthlessly true to historical fact colonial Australia was populated by simple minded petty criminals and their ignorance in this exotic setting is not far fetched But that doesn't necessarily make for great fiction and what was needed here was for the main character at least to leap frog this cultural intertia and actually LEARN something The ham fisted Thornhill lacks any developent whatsoever he has no real insight and experiences no epiphany By the end of the book Grenville purports him to be a wealthy landowner whilst I would have probably placed him into a sheltered workshop But I did at least empathise on one point As I laboured towards the closing pages I also was than ready for my Ticket of Leave


  3. says:

    This riveting historical novel is the first of a trilogy about the Thornhill family set in the last decades of the eighteenth century It is a story of destitution a penal colony the Aborigines and always the Sea The atmosphere and characters were captivating


  4. says:

    For years I’d wanted to have a go at this and when Grenville was again nominated for an Australian Prime Minister’s Award for the third book in the trilogy Sarah Thornhill of which this novel is the first I finally decided to begin at the beginning This novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2006 and won numerous other awards when it came out for good reason It is old time storytelling whose characters who begin life poor and grubby on the streets of London early in the nineteenth century get “sent down” to Australia in a convict ship earn their freedom and scratch out an existence in that unholy landGrenville’s descriptions of early nineteenth century London evoke a world crammed with humanity living cheek by jowl on crooked cobbled streets cold and grimy with coal dust Grenville contrasts this with the dry heat of Australia blazing with sun and the wide open unsettled and unsettling bigness of it The Australian Aborigine is caught to perfection in her wordsthe thinness the looseness of limbs the blackness the brows the teeth the joy the dignity and fierceness Her language is Dickensian her story that of AustraliaParts of this book are difficult to read they seem so cruel That man is a fearful and fearsome creature we know It is just painful to see ourselves through that glass so darkly reflected I can hardly recommend this title enough I have loved the writing of Kate Grenville forever it seems She has the potential for greatness and while some of her books may not uite reach that level this one does I listened to this book on Blackstone Audio narrated by the excellent Simon VanceFor those who come away from this book with that breathless sense of needing to know how she did that she has written a memoir about writing the novel called Searching For The Secret River A Writing Memoir I believe it took her as long to come down from writing it as it will take us to absorb it I look forward to enjoying her skills again


  5. says:

    The blurb After a childhood of poverty and petty crime in London's slums William Thornhill is transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life But freedom can be bought and when Thornhill claims a patch of land by the Hawkesbury River the battle lines between the old and new inhabitants are drawn uite a sterile introduction to an otherwise intense passionate and gripping tale of the earliest European settlers in AustraliaA haunting captivating atmospheric well written saga of two worlds colliding in an uncompromising wilderness around the Hawkerville river near Perth Australia The atmosphere was intense from the first part in the London slums where misery was a given at birth to the harsh reality of being dumped as convicts on the shores of AustraliaWhat a life's journey it has been Historical fiction in which a part of history is told with a colorful cast of characters populating a story of suffering endurance persistence cruelty and survival In the end there was happiness of some sorts given the circumstances and effort it took to reach that point where the final period could be added to the end of the book


  6. says:

    I just noticed this novel on sale for 199 Kindle was reminded that it is one of my all time favorites It has been over a decade since I've read it but it has stayed with me


  7. says:

    This is a type of book where the I think about it the I like it William Thornhill grew up poor in England His parents died when he was young leaving him to are for his younger siblings He takes a job as an apprentice with his childhood friend Sal's parents He has always liked Sal and as he learns a trade and sleeps under the same roof with her he falls in love with her At the end of his apprenticeship he and Sal marry Her parents also pass away Tragedy seems to follow them With an infant and wife to care for he begins a job and learns he does not make enough to care for everyone and steals some wood He is sentenced to the penal colony of New South Wales His wife and son go with him to Australia When they dock he sees his newborn son as his wife has given birth while on the voyage they travel on different parts on the ship as he is a prisoner and she is notAfter they arrive in Syndey they find a way to make it 50 miles north and William claims 100 acres as his Sal does not like this new land she is uncomfortable but promises her husband she will give it 5 years During this time children are born and Sal deals with loneliness and the hope that she will return home in 5 years timeIn the every beginning of the Novel William awakens to find a man standing in his hut naked holding a spear The man tells him Be off I liked the entire passage's description I think it does a great job of showing how both the Aborigines and the colonists feel about each other The Aborigines have always lived in that area it was theirs their children's It is their home Then comes in Colonists who proudly proclaim the land as theirs Atrocities occur on both sides Aborigines are mistreated Colonists get spearedSal and William hear the stories They have contact with the Aborigines Sal makes a trade with the women her bonnet for their crude bowls The Thornhills believe that they can live on this land without incident They do not want to treat the native people as other colonist have done so They refuse to take actions against them as their peers have done They do not know what to make of the naked people I like how William thought that the Aborigines in their nakedness and their way of life are free than he has ever been in his life This book also delves into what do good people do to protect what is theirs? Even though we hear Williams voice I feel the Author did a good job showing us the plight of the Aborigine It would have been nice to have of that voice told; however At what point does a good man make the decision to act against his morals and values? By the end of the book William is faced with that uestion He wants to be successful in his life and to care for his family Both sides feel entitled to the land Neither side has anywhere else left to go By the end of the book this issue of land ownership comes to a head The book began as a romance between William and Sal and ended with a struggle of survivalThis is book has some disturbing scenes people poisoned by the green powder a woman kept as a sex slave physical attacks etcSee of my reviews at wwwopenbookpostcom


  8. says:

    The Secret River explores human instinct on a level that is visceral honest and depressing Or perhaps it is just Western instinct rather than human instinct and that is even depressingThe novel tracks a family of Brits at the turn of the 19th century as the family is deported to Australia for crimes committed by William Thornhill husband and father and as it engages the challenges of the wilderness At its core The Secret River is the story of the family's interactions with the aborigines interactions both peaceful and confrontational and the conflict between on one side the family's desire to establish a settlement of their own and on the other side the relationship already shared between the aborigines and the landThe theme that guides this conflict is how different people provide for themselves and for their families and the novel gradually reveals two central models for doing so The first is the growing fetish for materialism isolation and ownership among most of the British settlers And the second is the communal minimalist existence of the AboriginesNaturally the efficient and simple existence of the blacks as they are often called in the novel reveals the moral turpitude of the settlers We of European descent are embarrassed by the male settlers who show little ability to reason empathize cooperate andor communicate Most of the British characters are dumb or ineffective; they victimize others and act selfishly and violently Their actions are formulaic and predictable right up to the endBut here's the rub At every step there's a sense that their brute actions are inevitable and that the result if we search our baser instincts however morally repulsive and inhumane the means may be is desirable The driving away of the aborigines for the sake of establishing a safe homestead feels like the inexorable march of the West It feels safe It feels alphaThe novel reveals the inherent ugliness of this instinctI was frustrated by the idiotic behavior of many characters' actions and then I felt resigned to the inevitability of the past two centuries of history It's a sad sad tale of Western expansion and waste And the romance between William and Sal his wife unfortunately does little to assuage the ill feelings It felt cold rather than heroicYet there's something real in this book; it taps into a visceral and unspoken impulse something too ugly and complicated to address casually That makes The Secret River valuable even if it is not always pleasurable Do I recommend it? Sure Loosely It's interesting cultural history Would I teach it? Mmm As a summer reading selection but not chapter by chapter Lasting impression Transparent brutal men; clever women; inevitable march of the West; failure of humanity


  9. says:

    From a young age William Thornhill knew what it was like to live rough and go with out and to feel hungry all the time Living with his family in the slums of London along the Thames River he is forced to steal as a means of survival He is only thirteen when his parents die which is when things start looking increasingly grim William gets friendly with one of his sisters friends Sarah Sal Middleton who is an only child She may not have been the prettiest girl but William thinks things look a whole brighter when she is aroundNot long after Williams parents died Mr Middleton takes William on as an apprentice where he'll learn to be a waterman and at the end of his seven year apprenticeship he'll be a freeman of the Thames River Having a great love for the river and not being afraid of hard work William is in his element and it seems life has taken a turn for the better William also knows that once he has a trade behind him he'll be able to marry Sal and settle down and start a family of their ownSeven years on and everything is going just the way William had hoped it would He married Sal and they have their first child William Willie They couldn't be happier until one day when William is caught stealing wood and from here their lives will start to go down hill very uickly William is thrown into The Old Bailey where he is sentenced to hang Sal does all she can to stop this from happening Eventually he is granted a pardon for his crime on the condition he be transported to the Eastern part of New South Wales for the term of his sentenceIn 1806 William arrives in Sydney Cove where he will serve his sentence with his wife and growing family William is determined that one day he'll own a piece of land build a house and provide for his wife and children This won't be so easy as he struggles with the aboriginal people for ownership of the landThis is a brilliantly written piece of historical fiction which I believe every Australian should read I found this book to be a very interesting and engaging story as well as a very powerful read Highly recommended


  10. says:

    The Secret River is a historical story about William Thornhill who was convicted of a crime in England and sentenced to death However William Thornhill wrote a letter saying how sorry he was for committing this offence and it was converted to transportation to Australia for his natural life Readers of The Secret River will continue to follow the twist and turns to see what happens to William and Sarah Thornhill The Secret River is the first book I have read of Kate Grenville and I enjoyed it I love the way Kate Grenville portray her characters Kate Grenville did a great job in describing the life of her two main characters in England and Australia that engaged the readers of The Secret River and to transported them back in time I also like the way Kate Grenville describes the interaction of the people along the river and the Aboriginal People However I did cry reading The Secret River especially the part about the massacre of the Aboriginal CommunityReaders of The Secret River will learn about the life of people in London during the 18th century Also readers of The Secret River will learn about transportation to Australian and live of the convicts on arrival in Australia Reading The Secret River you will learn about the white settlement in Sydney and along the Hawkesbury River The Secret River also highlights that you should value all your children and not wait until it too lateI recommend this book