Monday, October 23, 2006

Secret River by Kate Grenville

One of these days, I really must get myself to the Hawkesbury River region of New South Wales: it looks to be very beautiful and remarkably remote, given its proximity to Sydney. But then, my only real information about the place is from watching the Oyster Farmer, one of my favourite movies from this year's film festival. In the meantime, my interest has been sparked again by The Secret River, another of the shortlisted Booker books for this year, which is largely set on the Hawkesbury, the "secret river" of the title - so-called partly because "a man could sail around for days and never find his way into the Hawkesbury" but also because it is a place of secret shames, things which can never be spoken of, even between husband and wife. The novel shares something with Nick Cave's recent movie, The Proposition: while things may now be peaceful, modern Australian civilisation is based on a very bloody foundation.

The novel started out very slowly: the first 70 pages are devoted to the life of Will and Sal Thornhill before they leave London. This part is largely to set up a comparison for their time in Australia: for Sal, it represents "Home" but William doesn't have any fond memories of the place. He's
a waterman, a bit of a dodgy character, who while carrying goods about the Thames for others in his skiff is a little light-fingered. It is when he is finally caught red-handed that he is sentenced to spend the term of his natural life in Australia - after managing to escape a hanging. I have to say that for some reason, as I was reading this early part of the novel, I found myself more and more prepared to dislike it, getting a little antagonistic even. Partly it was because there were a few factual assertions which just niggled (although the main one was down to a misreading on my part): for example, I had trouble accepting that William had been assigned a barrister to act on his behalf or that a special dispensation was needed in the first place to avoid hanging because it was very common to have the death sentence for minor crimes be commuted, partly so the new land could be stocked with people, I suspect.Then there were the tangerines Sal fed to him - my mind was going "but surely, they'd not been invented then" - it turns out they're a native of Tangiers, but still, they were not shipped to Europe until the 1840's so it is not likely Will would be eating them in London in 1803.

No matter, because once the story moved to Australia, my niggles disappeared. Things are very different for Will when he gets to Sydney, "a sad scrabbling place" known as The Camp because it was very much a "half formed temporary sort of place" in 1806. In an odd sort of arrangement, Will is assigned to Sal - convicts were not just turned loose but became a form of slave, a very "ingenious and thrifty scheme" as the master would have to support the servant, rather than be funded by the government. Grenville moves fairly quickly through this phase of theThornhills' life: they establish a grog shop, selling both legitimately obtained and stolen grog and Will gets a job as waterman. There is, however, a turning point: he becomes fearful of being caught for the crimes he is committing, which will lead to incarceration in Tasmania, somewhere you just don't want to go. More importantly, the major theme of the novel is introduced: relations between the colonists and "the black natives of the place". There are those, like Scabby Bill, who seem not to object to the occupation of their land and accomodate themselves to it but there are also those who are less visible, who are introduced as a threatening and hostile presence.

When Will is given his freedom by Major-General Lauchlan MacQuarie, buys his own boat and then moves upriver, some sort of confrontation becomes inevitable. Very early, we are told that it is upriver that:
the blacks were most numerous and most warlike. They gatherered by the hundreds, it was said, and descended on the lonely huts of the farmers. Tales came back of men speared, their huts robbed, their fields burned. The Gazette had a handy expression that covered all the things the blacks did, and suggested others: outrages and depredations.
Here's how the river is described when Will first sees it, after navigating the piled up rocks which conceal its entrance:
... the cliffs rose sheer on both sides, mouse grey except where the wind had exposed buttery rock, as if the landscape itself was a dark-skinned creature with golden flesh beneath.

The rock had been laid down flat, layer upon layer piled high like flitches of timber. As it had worn away, great slabs the size of a house had fallen off and tumbled all skewiff at the foot of the cliffs. Some lay half in the water. melting away. Where the cliff met the water a tangle of snake like roots, vines and mangroves lnotted around the fallen boulders.

This was a place out of a dream, a fierce landscape of chasms and glowering cliffs and a vast unpredictable sky. Everywhere was the same but everywhere was different. Thornhill felt his eyes wide open, straining to find something they could understand.

It seemed the emptiest place in the world, too wild for any man to have made his home.
Of course, he finds a spot he wants to call home: while he is careful to ensure that under colonial law no-one had beaten him to it, it never enters his mind that there might be other inhabitants, people with a prior claim. He wants it and eventually he moves there - the deal with Sal is that after five years, they'll go "Home" because, to her, the idea of staying in this wild place for ever is unbearable. In the meantime, she does her cheerful best to settle in to life on the river.

It doesn't take long before Will meets the locals - they do a fair amount of talking to each other but: "there were too many people here, and too little language to go around", although it is clear the Thornhills are being told to go back to where they came from. I think that in time, the Thornhills would have actually worked things out with the locals - Sal makes mates with the aboriginal women, one of their sons spends a lot of time with them, learning their ways and even Will shows the potential to make some sort of breakthrough with them. He learns, for example, that contrary to the stories, the aboriginals were not lazy good-for-nothings, but had developed a life which was in perfect accord with their natural surroundings, and even gets to envy the way they can stroll into the forest and find dinner while the Thornhills are scrambling in the hot sun to establish their imported crops. Although Will is a little patronising, he is getting there:
Thornhill would have said all the blacks looked the same, so it was somewhat surprising to realise after a time how easily he could tell them apart. He began to give the men names: humble sorts of names that made their differences less potent. It made something domestic - just another kind of neighbourhood - out of this unpromising material.
Unfortunately, there are other white people upriver as well, and they are completely antagonistic to the aboriginals; disregarding any notion that they had been here a long time and worked out their own patterns of living. So, people like the evil little man Smasher Sullivan are continually ranting about "the blacks" about whom he found "no story too terrible to repeat" and vowing vengeance for all the wrongs he sees them as having done to him, with no recognition that in the views of the aboriginals, he is a trespasser.

As a result, trouble is brewing and Will is ultimately faced with a terrible choice, between having Sal and the kids all leave to go back "Home" or to put the trouble to rest, once and for all, so that Sal can feel safe in her new home.

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Blogger piksea said...

That's a much cooler looking cover than the American version. I just read this recently and, although, I wasn't at all sure what to expect, I did enjoy it. Grenville covered a lot of territory in this book and I think she did it pretty well. I definitely preferred this to 'The Inheritance of Loss'.

4:28 AM  
Blogger Meg said...

Hey! Your Hawkesbury photo is nicer than mine!
Anyway, thanks for your extended review. I haven't seen The Oyster Farmer yet but really must.

12:28 PM  

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