London, 1806 – William Thornhill, happily wedded to his childhood sweetheart Sal, is a waterman on the river Thames. Life is tough but bearable until William makes a mistake, a bad mistake for which he and his family are made to pay dearly.
“He stood up in the prisoner’s dock, a high pedestal where he was on display as if naked to the whole court. His hands were tied hard behind his back, forcing him to bow his head. He kept trying to straighten up, to look his fate in the eye, but the pain in his neck forced him to hunch. Up so high, he could feel the rising vapours of those below him in the court: all those bodies encased in their clothes, all those chests breathing in and out, all those words, passing around through the air.”
His sentence is to be transports to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. Soon, Thornhill, a man no better or worse than most, has to make the most difficult decision of his life.
This book is a masterpiece. A. Masterpiece. Beginning on the shores of poverty-pitted London, The Secret River follows the life of William Thornhill right through to his emancipation to Australia. It is a fascinating read, fantastically written with a narrative that weaves through fiction and history, allowing the reader an insight into true life in newly settled New South Wales.
Author Kate Grenville wrote The Secret River after five long years of researching into her family history. As Kate Grenville says:
“The whole thing started innocently enough, as a search into some family history. My mother had told me stories about the first of our family to come to Australia – my great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman was a lighterman on the Thames, pinched a load of timber and was transported for the term of his natural life. Within 6 years of arriving here, he’d become a free man and “taken up land” on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. He went on to make buckets of money, built a fine stone house, and was buried – so the story goes – in top hat and tails, with a box of sovereigns at his feet. (Unfortunately for his great-great-great grand-daughter, the next generation proceeded to lose the lot.)”
Even though I am sure my Australian background and interest in our nations history sparked my interest in The Secret River, this is a novel that would be enjoyed by any culture. The themes of poverty, family and racism are not Australia-centric and the narrative works well to draw any reader in.
Since its publication, The Secret River has won numerous awards, including the ‘2006 Commonwealth Prize’. It is a novel which is seeped in Australia – both our past and our future. The novel compels its reader to consider social injustice, and ponder and question how we move forward as a nation.
In saying that The Secret River is deeply invested in history is not to say that it is not an entertaining, enjoyable read. Kate Grenville paints a scene so vividly that you feel like you too are starving and impoverished in 19th century England, desperate for a solution:
“He was always hungry. That was a fact of life: the gnawing feeling in his belly, the flat taste in his mouth, the rag that there was never enough. When the food came it was a matter of cramming it into his mouth so his hands could reach for more. If he was quick enough, he could grab the bread his little brother was lifting to his mouth, break a piece off and get it down his gullet. Once it was swallowed, no one could get it back.”
Trust me when I say that you will love this book. This will be one that you read over and over again; it is the kind of novel that you can always find more to think about and consider. You will not regret taking the time for this one.
Where Can I Get It?
To buy The Secret River for a great price and have it shipped straight to your door for free, follow this link to the Book Depository.