The Secret River

These days it’s so easy to take most of what we have and see around us for granted. Living in our comfy homes, driving around in our comfy cars and dining in comfy restaurants is a reality far removed from that now distant day in 1788 when white man first stepped off the boat onto Britain’s newest possession, Australia. Grenville’s novel is an awakening, taking us back to a time when things were not quite so comfy; to a life so detached from our own.

This is a compelling and yet disturbing story as it reminds us of the atrocities of white settlement – race against race; the obliteration of language and culture; and the ignorance and false supremacy of the new settlers. Set in New South Wales at the time of convict transportation, the story follows William Thornhill, his wife Sal and their children as they are quite literally dumped in the fledgling settlement of Sydney to fend for themselves. They are provided with a few blankets and a shelter of sorts, but nothing to prepare them for life in a totally unfamiliar country. The insects, plant life and forests, the bizarre animals and the unrelenting heat, all contrast so outlandishly with the London they knew. But beyond this are the Aborigines, the strange, black-skinned people everyone called savages, whose presence and customs mystify and unnerve the newcomers trying to scratch out an existence on land they took as their own but was never theirs to take.

This is a beautifully told story that doesn’t flinch from the truth or cushion the blow of harsh realities. The process of colonisation was brutally devastating for the Indigenous Peoples of Australia, and Grenville doesn’t seek to soothe our sensibilities in the telling of the tale. It gives an insightful look at a fascinating, potent time in history – the birth of a new nation at the expense of an ancient culture. It also gives an illuminating description, in the first part of the story, of 19th century English life and the hardships of poverty that drove so many to petty crime and, consequently, the disproportionate penalty of the gallows or transportation.

This is certainly a confronting novel, but an imperative read for people of any cultural background.

Rosemary

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