Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

"Ain't nothing in this world for the taking.
Matter of give a little, take a little."
Thomas Blackwood

I recently just read The Secret River by Kate Grenville. Published in 2008, it is one of three books about the early colonisation of Australia by the British empire. It was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2006 and is winner of the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize. It is broken into parts not chapters so each part is the same as a really big chapter with some being larger than other.

The original cover from the publisher
The book itself focuses on the main character William Thornhill, as he grows from a poor child in the streets of London into a grown and rich main on the river bank of Sydney. In his childhood he is one of many siblings and the reader really sympathises with his poor living conditions. Grenville allows William to have a ray of sunlight in the form of Sal Middleton, a childhood sweetheart.  I felt really happy for William, when in Part 1 "London", he finally begins to make something with his life as he is given an apprenticeship by Mr Middleton who is a water-man on the river Thames. William ends up marrying Sal and their relationship turns out amazing. It is just so saddening that after the dead of Sal parents, William is forced to turn back to his life of thievery. I knew i should've expected this but it still hit me quite hard when he got caught stealing some wood from his employer. Of course as it's a story William couldn't be hung here, and he is sentenced to exile to Australia.

Part 2 to Part 6 are all about William's life on Australia, or more precisely Sydney. Never having an inkling of what it means to own something of his own it is easy to see why he is so obsessed with staying there and not returning to London. In Part 3, after taking a loan from one of his employers, he takes a plot of land, previously owned by the natives, and makes it his own. There he uproots their crops and starts to plant his own crops simply thinking them as the work of "moles". The natives of course are not happy, however, William refuses to leave the plot of land he has become obsessed with. By this time he has children on his own and I understand why he is unwilling to leave, although I feel that he was being very ignorant comparing the natives to "ants". There are two types of white settlers: Smasher Sullivan, the type who wishes to kill all natives and Thomas Blackwood, who finds it easier to simply get along with them. Thomas Blackwood has a secret as is discovered by William later in the book about how close he really is to the natives.

His second oldest son Richard, Dick for short, is the son who interacts mostly with the natives. It can be seen that he just wants friends. Sal, similarly, just wants people around her as she is set on returning to London one day, finding Sydney as small stop in their journey. Eventually Sal gives up on ever returning to London as she understands that, since only one of their children was born in London, their home is in Sydney. These feelings begin to tear the family apart. When William is assigned two servants, also convicts, to his household, the beginning of him becoming corrupt can be seen. He swore to never be like the "gentry" who forced him into a poor lifestyle but he ends up becoming one of them and abusing his power over the two servants.

Things really go downhill from Part 5 and Part 6. Here the natives are found to be gathering in numbers, although the reason is unknown, and are thought to be preparing for war. The governor of Sydney issues that all white settlers are allowed to remove the natives form their properties by any means necessary. Eventually, the natives are poisoned by one of the white settlers with rat poison, with the remainder being killed in a massacre. It is implicitly stated that William only kills one native, but in my opinion that doesn't change the things he did.

In the epilogue "Thornhill's Place", the Thornhill family has broken up. Dick no longer lives with his family and William and Sal's relationship is strained with secrets. William is a rich person who employs others to work for him and now owns nearly all the land around the river.     

In 2015, the book was made into a two-part miniseries by ABC with the first episode airing June 14th 2015 and the second episode airing June 21st 2015. It stars Oliver-Jackson Cohen as William Thornhill, Sarah Snook as Sal Thornhill and Lachy Hulme as Thomas Blackwood. Check out the trailer below:

Personally, I found the book kept me on my toes despite being slightly boring at times as it is not exactly the kind of book I read. Grenville certainly knows how to progress the relationships in the story very well as she keeps husband and wife close despite the many opportunities to destroy their relationship. In my opinion, Thornhill may not have been the best protagonist, however this book is perfect for showing the truth behind the atrocious acts that took place against the aboriginal people in Sydney. The book does include descriptions of some graphic scenes and may not be best for younger readers. I would give it a 9/10. Be sure to tell me what you think and any similar books through the comments section!

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