You generally know that a book has had an impact when you dream about it — or when you wake and it’s the first thing on your mind. This is what happened to me with the Booker short-listed and much acclaimed The Secret River by Kate Grenville.
I had not expected to like this book. This is because I think there are too many Australian novels about the country’s convict past and one more wasn’t really going to add anything to the sum of human knowledge. But I was wrong about this one.
On the face of it The Secret River is a good old-fashioned tale about a poor Thames waterman who, having been found guilty of stealing some precious timber, is sent to the other side of the world — New South Wales — for the term of his natural life. Here, accompanied by his wife and children, he is eventually pardoned and then tries to make a new life for himself as a waterman on the Hawkesbury River. He secures a 100-acre plot in the forest, where he builds a hut and plants a cornfield, and contends with the native population and their intimidating ways…
But delve a little deeper and this novel explores all kinds of moralistic issues: what constitutes crime and how should criminals be punished?; at what point should a man fight for what he believes in?; when does land ownership become a right and not a privilege?; do you have a right to defend your property by force?; and how should one handle cultures in collision?
More importantly it also uncovers Australia’s secret past in which the country’s Aboriginals were slaughtered or forced out of their territory because they were perceived as a threat that had to be eradicated, something which still resonates today.
Grenville handles this issue with intelligence and wisdom. Not only does she put a human face on this dark past, she makes you wonder what would you do if you were put in the same situation, living in a strange land where all the rules have been thrown out the window and the only way you can convince your wife that this slice of paradise is worth holding onto is to make her world safe by any means possible. The dilemma faced by the main character, William Thornhill, is all to real — even if, tempered by hindsight and 200 years of supposed civilisation, you may not agree with his decisions or actions.
I found this book imminently readable, with its straightforward narrative and well-paced plot broken up into easily digestible sections. In my opinion some of the characters are slightly stereotyped — the strong, dependable feisty wife; the nutty loner hellbent on killing blacks — but for the most part it’s an entertaining read that conveys the origins of modern Australia and the evils of colonialism with understated empathy.
Whether it is Booker Prize-winning material remains to be seen.