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The Secret River

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The Secret River  
AuthorKate Grenville
Genre(s)Historical fiction
PublisherText Publishing, Australia
Publication date2005
Media typehardback
OCLC Number70061296
Dewey Decimal823/.914 22
LC ClassificationPR9619.3.G73 S43 2005
Preceded byThe Idea of Perfection
Followed bySearching for The Secret River

The Secret River, written by Kate Grenville in 2005, is a historical fiction about an early 19th century Englishman transported to Australia for theft. The story begins with an insightful flashback to England, and goes on to explore issues surrounding the question of what might have happened when Europeans colonised land already inhabited by Aboriginal people[1]. According to a review in The Telegraph, The Secret River has more action than Grenville's previous novel,The Idea of Perfection[2]. The book is also one of careful observation and vividly imagines an early Australian landscape with rich precision[3]. The book has been compared to Thomas Keneally's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and to Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang for its style and historical theme.



The Secret River was inspired by Grenville's desire to understand "what had happened when [her ancestor, Solomon] Wiseman arrived ... [on the Hawkesbury River at the area now known as Wiseman's Ferry] and started the business of 'settling'".[4] Her inspiration to understand this came from her taking part in the 2000-05-28 Reconciliation Walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge during which she realised that she didn't know much about "what had gone on between the Aboriginal people and the settlers in those early days".[5] Initially intended to be a work of non-fiction about Wiseman, the book eventually became a fictional work based on her research into Wiseman but not specifically about Wiseman himself.

The novel is "dedicated to the Aboriginal people of Australia: past, present and future".[6]

Plot summary

After a childhood of poverty and petty crime in the slums of London, William Thornhill is sentenced in 1806 to be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. With his wife Sal and children in tow, he arrives in a harsh land that feels at first like a death sentence. However, there is a way for the convicts to buy freedom and start afresh. Away from the infant township of Sydney, up the Hawkesbury River, Thornhill encounters men who have tried to do just that: Blackwood, who is attempting to reconcile himself with the place and its people, and Smasher Sullivan, whose fear of this alien world turns into brutal depravity towards it. As Thornhill and his family stake their claim on a patch of ground by the river, the battle lines between old and new inhabitants are drawn. [7]

The early life of William Thornhill is one of poverty, depredation and criminality, which is also seen in Charles Dickens[8]. The early settlements are described passionately by the author. The main character is an unlikely hero, though he is a loving husband and a good father, he is also the villain in the way he interacts with the Indigenous inhabitants. While the main character tries to change his life when he falls in love with a piece of land and dreams of a life of dignity and entitlement, the past comes back to haunt him. His interactions with the Aboriginal people is described in detail. It shows him starting with fear, however after careful observation, he begins to appreciate them. The desire for him to own the land contrasts with his wife wanting to return to England [9]. The clash is one between a group of people desperate for land and another for whom the concept of ownership is bewildering [10]

Literary significance and criticism

While the story has a morality theme, it is treated subtly by the author. It is not a predictable one of right and wrong, but one of fear and ignorance[11]. This is a fine novel of colonial life and of "the tragedy of the confrontation between Aborigine and white settler"[12]. Though the book does not give an insight into the minds of the Aboriginals, it goes into great depth in the troubled mind of the main character[13]. The book is a powerful, highly credible account of how a limited man of good instincts becomes involved in enormity and atrocity.

Grenville further explores at book end, that even though the extermination of the 'blacks' had occurred to a degree- William Thornill never feels at peace with his conscience. “They will only be seen when they want you to see them”. The “blacks”, as they are referred to in Kate Grenville’s novel, The Secret River, are depicted as reappearing and disappearing into the looming darkness of the colonial settlement. Attempting to resist the fierce smothering caused by the English settlers, the various dialects of the Indigenous population seem to slowly disappear, but not without numerous confrontations, as if a night fading into a new horizon. At the readers' final glimpse of Thornill's Place, the setting is characterised by industrialised farming and the destruction of land. Yet, the mystery of their existence influences William until death.

Searching for the Secret River

Grenville followed up The Secret River with a non-fiction book titled Searching for the Secret River in which she describes both the research she undertook into the history behind the book and her writing process. She chronicles how she changed from her original plan of writing a non-fiction book about her great-great-great-grandfather, Solomon Wiseman, to writing a fictional work.[14]. Reviewer Stella Clarke writes that "Searching for the Secret River records Grenville's five-year journey to the finished novel, which started out as nonfiction, moved from first to third person, through exhaustive dissections and revolutions, before completion. It is education in the art, and craft, of fiction, a lesson in the arduous devotion it can command. Yet is [sic] much more than a quite unbelievably generous 'invitation into her writing room'. It is a courageous public scrutiny of her motives".[14]

Use in curricula

The Secret River is a text used for the Victorian Certificate of Education Year 12 English course.[15] It is also used for the Western Australian TEE course through Secondary school.

External links

Awards and nominations



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