Kate Grenville was first published in 2005 to critical acclaim. It is an historical novel set around the Hawkesbury area near Sydney in the first two decades or so of the nineteenth century. The main character is William Thornhill ,who was transported to New South Wales aboard the ship Alexander “for the term of his natural life” for stealing some timber he was delivering as part of his work as a ferryman on the Thames. His wife Sal, a free woman, was allowed to come on the transport to Sydney too - in a separate section of the ship.
In the first chapter “Strangers” we meet William lying awake beside his sleeping wife and new born child in a wattle-and-daub hut in Sydney in 1806 listening to the eerie sounds of this new strange place . He gets up from the bedding and goes outside into the night and comes face to face with an Aboriginal man - the “strangeness” of it all is palpable. This first chapter sets out the tone and the powerful themes of the book - fear, courage, ambition, greed,usurpation, misunderstanding and the great difficulty of communication across cultures .
After this first chapter the book goes back to London and places the story in its context with what life was like for William and Sal growing up and marrying, leading up to their transportation to New South Wales . The research undertaken by the author illuminates this background chapter in an exciting way. We feel we know these people through their young life stories and expectations and therefore have empathy with them as they struggle to work out an existence in the new colonial settlement of Sydney.
The main adventurous part of the novel however takes place in the Hawkesbury River and upper reach farmland area near Sydney . William gains his emancipation certificate after a few years in Sydney and moves to the Hawkesbury , takes up some land and plies his old trade of ferryman by shipping farm produce from the farms to Sydney which hungers for it and returns with goods for the settler farmers. Life is very hard for these river settlers who for the most part have simply squatted on these lands , fenced them rudely and started out growing corn etc. The Aboriginal owners who live in and around the countryside and the river area foraging, fishing, hunting, camping and celebrating are pushed further and further away with often tragic outcomes.
The central tragedy in the story is a massacre by the settlers of an Aboriginal clan who were seen as the enemy - a very sad story of violence and counter-violence. William takes part in this tragic violent act , albeit reluctantly . It has a lasting effect on him.
However the story moves on as do the dispossessed Aborigines . The Thornhill’s prosper and set themselves up with a comfortable life with their five children. At the end we see an ageing William sitting on his sandstone verandah at "Wiseman's Ferry"looking pensively through a telescope at the wooded cliffs wondering if “they” were there.
“even after the cliffs had reached the moment at sunset where they blazed gold , even after the dusk left them glowing... even then he sat on, watching, into the dark”.
This descriptive language ,whilst economical throughout the story , lends the book its special beauty both in the sketching of the natural surroundings and in setting up the relationships and the inner thoughts of the main characters.
The characterisation of the Thornhills , William and Sal, their children and the other settlers is very believable. Sal, for instance, is striving to return home to London and we learn she sees herself with “a five year sentence” before she can achieve her dream , yet we know William is yearning to be a landowner and make a new life for himself and family. Each is nervous about their separate dreams and careful to protect each other from the other’s yearnings as they toil to live in the very harsh circumstances for the first several years. There are caring people among the settlers as well as selfish, unthinking and at times violent people . Grenville brings these minor characters illuminatingly to life and the story is the richer for this.
All the more remarkable ,then, was the decision by the author to not use pidgin English for the Aborigines in the first encounters in order to gain as much verisimilitude with what would have been happening and how the experience would have been from the settlers point of view and the Aboriginal people of the area. I think this works and we see the Aboriginals in the story as real people - caring for their way of life . Their tragedy of being misunderstood , treated condescendingly and often with contempt and violence gives the story much of its poignancy and power.
Kate Grenville wrote another book about how she came to this story and the research she undertook for it - “Searching for the Secret River” . This is recommended too because it brings out so much of interest for the reader about the writing of engaging historical fiction. There was some controversy with some historians at the time of publication - Grenville was thought to have claimed too much historical significance for the novel. “Searching....” is a very thorough answer to this issue in my opinion. We know , for instance, that Grenville’s ancestor was Solomon Wiseman who settled in the Hawkesbury area and is remembered in the town name of Wiseman’s Ferry. Wiseman , a Thames ferryman, was transported for theft , along with his free woman wife , Janet , in the “Alexander” which was an actual convict ship . The Wisemans arrived in Sydney in 1806. The author’s research in London for original records and local colour is well set out in this latter book too. Grenville has said in answer to the controversy that she does not claim her novel as a work of history as such and that there has been some misunderstanding of her words in an interview re the historical nature of the work. Her website contains this information and story for anyone who wishes to explore this further.
However in the end what we have is a work of fiction , beautifully written and realised ,informed by research and strong personal interest. It brings a section of Colonial Australian history to life and allows the imagination to ponder the circumstances surrounding these people both colonisers and original owners with empathy and some wonder.