The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill, a boatman living in Dickensian poverty in London, who’s transported to Sydney as a convict along with his family in 1806. In Australia, still little more than a handful of convict townships and a lot of empty space, he settles on a hundred acres of land he claims for his own, only to discover that the indigenous people were there first, and they’re not moving. Thornhill’s clash with “the blacks” miniaturises the contemporary global sweep of white colonialism with crushing inevitability.
The novel is a gripping read, containing some truly stunning descriptive passages and building real tension and raw emotion. However, it verges on the simplistic, and its use of archaic language is often awkward. The habit of putting dialogue into italics instead of quotation marks is also just plain annoying. I would suggest that this book thinks it’s a little cleverer than it really is, and I find myself wary of texts about colonialism that gloss over the perspective of the indigenous culture, as this does.
This is a dark and sad novel, full of frustrations for the reader at its characters’ bad choices. Thornhill is described in the blurb as “a man no better or worse than most”, and appears throughout ambiguously as both the hero and anti-hero, his various actions sparking both sympathy and deep disgust. He never achieves a real complexity of character, however, and it is a flaw of the novel’s voice that it moves between his indirect perspective and that of an omniscient narrator, because it forces an awkward contrast between some very beautiful narrative insight and Thornhill’s ugly and uneducated decision making. The range of his responses to the Aborigines seems somehow arbitrary, because of this mix; he moves from glimpsing the notion that their life is much more like the gentry of England than his own, with time for pleasure, making art and playing with babies, to something like friendly interaction, to shaking guns at them, to his final, unspeakable acts with little introspection. The novel acknowledges a moment of possibility of co-existence, peace and friendship between the settlers and the indigenous tribe that is fractured by misunderstanding and violence. This suggestion is controversial, however, since my feeling is that the novel tends to portray the indigenous people as noble savages. A novel about colonialism told entirely from a white perspective will always be contentious and always be reinforcing dominant narratives and perpetuating dominant voices, no matter how critical it is, and while The Secret River is of course critical of the violent attitudes towards the Aborigines (for example, the disgusting Smasher, who gleefully rapes and murders), frankly it does not go far enough in critiquing the colonial project. The reader’s empathy and alignment with Thornhill’s love, built by Grenville’s rich and glowing descriptions, for ‘his’ piece of land disguises the fact that he steals it from under the feet of the native groups simply because they haven’t built a fence around it.
At its heart, this haunting novel is about place, and emplacement. In London, Thornhill and his wife Sal have barely a penny to their name, let alone a true home which they own; time after time, they are forced out of their accommodation by poverty and have their possessions stripped away, eventually being turned out of their entire country. Thornhill’s love for the patch of foreign land he settles is strengthened because it is the first place in which he has ever felt emplaced, has ever felt ownership of. But Thornhill’s notion of ownership is not the same as that of the Aborigines, and the land he claims is not much more than stolen. His final, fitting punishment for his actions is the knowledge of this fact; his sense of emplacement in the land he loves is destroyed by his guilt and repressed remorse, embodied in the figure of Long Jack, who subsists on Thornhill’s property, resisting his ownership.
The perspective of the novel is fractured, confused and internal, which is sometimes effective and sometimes not. It functions nicely to build the intimacy of Thornhill's troubled relationships with his wife and children, but doesn't speak well to wider narratives. I don't know that I would call this an enjoyable read exactly - at times it's difficult and even disturbing to get through - but it certainly is a worthwhile one, flawed, but thought-provoking and unusual.