Secret River Essay

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)
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The Secret River is at once a departure from the kind of fiction on which Australian writer Kate Grenville has built her reputation over the past two decades and the logical outcome of her career-long interest in untold stories. The novel grew out of Grenville’s participation in a march for reconciliation that prompted her to learn more about white Australians’ early dealings with the native population and about her ancestor Solomon Wiseman, a convict-settler transported to Australia in 1805. After a year of research in London and Australia, Grenville spent four years writing The Secret Riverlonger than any of her other novels. What began as a biography of her ancestor became her finest novel to date and a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. “I wanted to show the average settler was just an ordinary man,” Grenville has said in her characteristically understated manner, but The Secret River shows a great deal more than that. Her story of a man, a marriage, and a land becomes a tale of two rivers, two countries, two cultures, and, ultimately, in reviewer Jem Poster’s words, “a tragedy of mutual incomprehension.”

The Secret River begins in darkness on William Thornhill’s first night in Sydney. “There were things worse than dying: life had taught him that. Being here in New South Wales might be one of them.” His misgivings intensify as soon as Thornhill sees his first Aborigine emerging from the darkness as if from a dream, wearing “his nakedness like a cloak” and making the fully clothed Thornhill feel as “skinless as a maggot.” Following this short prefatory section, the novel loops back to the small part of London that Thornhill knows, the cramped, Dickensian east end along the Thames. Following the deaths of his parents, Thornhill is fortunate enough to be apprenticed to a kindly waterman, Mr. Middleton, whose daughter Sarah (Sal), he marries as soon as he completes his seven-year...