Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Secret River

The Secret River
Author: Kate Grenville
Text Publishing, 2005
334 pages

When I was in Sydney last month, I did a search on Amazon.com for books about Australia and came across this book. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (a very important prize for contemporary fiction written by authors from the British Commonwealth and Ireland), this story is about a young Englishman who through a sad series of events ends up on a convict ship sent to Australia back in 1806. William Thornhill is the epitome of survivor, and Grenville's descriptions of his ups and downs leave you feeling like you've ridden on a rollercoaster. Despite his human shortcomings, Thornhill is a likeable fellow, which makes it that much harder to get angry with him when he does stupid things.

His wife, Sarah or "Sal", is one of the most interesting female characters I've encountered this year. She's a saucy gal who grew up wealthy compared to dirt-poor Thornhill, and they fell in love at an early age. Thornhill was an apprentice to her father, who owned a sort of water taxi service in London. Things seem to be looking up when Thornhill gets accepted by the local guild as a true apprentice. But when Sal's father dies unexpectedly, their world falls apart.

Grenville's descriptions of their hunger will leave your stomach growling. It almost seems a relief when Thornhill ends up in jail - until you read about the horrible jail conditions of that time. When Thornhill is sent to Australia as a convict (his death sentence for theft was commuted in exchange for his transport), she becomes his legal "master" for a certain number of years. The humor between them is nothing sort of sweet. They are as close to soul mates as any other fictional characters I've read about, maybe even more than Bella and Edward!

Eventually, their ever-growing family ends up taking a chance homesteading on a hundred-acre plot two hours by boat from the nearest town. Here, they begin eking out a living as farmers, supplemented with Thornhill's boat, which he borrowed money to purchase. Their hard lives are complicated by the local natives (Aboriginal people) whose lifestyles are very different from the Europeans. While the Thornhills are busting it everyday to run the farm, they see the natives just living day to day without much effort. They don't understand this lifestyle any more than the natives understand theirs. Eventually the tensions escalate . . . until one day, Thornhill has to make a decision as to who will survive.

The ending may not be happy (for the natives), but it's based on historical records of similar events that happened at that time. Grenville supposedly got the idea for the book and characters based on her research into her own ancestry.  Given that an estimated 20 million Australians living today descended from convicts, this story or stories like it are probably not all that unusual. 

I came away with an increased appreciation of what my own ancestors went through during times of hardship (which was basically all of history up until, say, my parents' generation). And I'm even more aware now of what a miracle it is that any of us are here.

Rating: 4 stars.