04 December, 2007

'The Secret River', Kate Grenville

Of recently-released fiction, this was the novel I was most keen to read. It was Australian, it dealt with history, it was from an admired publishing house (Text) and it had been decorated with multiple awards. Such a build-up can lead to disappointment, but I don't think it was my expectations that gave me a confused response to this book.

The first part of the book is concerned with the London life of William Thornhill: his childhood, marriage to Sal and the lead-up to when a robbery, necessary to keep his young family in food, goes wrong and he is sentenced to transportation to Australia. After some time in the new colony the Thornhills settle upriver on the Hawkesbury and the core of the book is concerned with their struggle and that of other 'emancipists' to establish themselves on the land that they were encouraged to claim and work in order to help the colony prosper.

This land, of course, contrary to British decree, was not unoccupied. The relationship between the settlers and the indigenous inhabitants was never peaceful and from the beginning showed the worst in white culture. Some of the conversations in the book about the 'natives' are sickening. Not because of any graphic detail, however, but for the undisguised ignorance and unforgivable presumption being shown on the part of the settlers.

It was with this theme that I struggled. The novel has no real narrative voice: it is historical fiction that has come down on the fiction side of the fence, in that it purely retells a story as it is presumed to have happened. Therefore there is no moderator when the settlers accuse the Aborigines of 'thieving' their land, when they declare that as the natives have never worked the land, never broken a sweat over it, they therefore have absolutely no entitlement to it.

For the most part these were simple men that settled on the Hawkesbury. The majority came from poor stock in England and they were all there because of an unjust legal system that cared little for the non-gentry. To a man they acted unconscionably to the indigenous population. I can postulate it was due to the power rush of having a class beneath them, but that is flawed since firstly nothing should excuse their actions, and secondly the native race was in fact far advanced.

But all of this did happen - native land was stolen, vital crops were destroyed and many, many indigenous people were savagely killed. I struggled with this not being commented on, with it simply being presented as the historical fact. Which, unless Grenville had written a textbook, was the mode in which it needed to be presented. I was further disturbed by how little removed the Australian descendants, or modern citizens of the Empire, are from these people and that while the purveyors of such ignorance and presumption have gone on to 'prosper', a culture with so much respect for and knowledge of our brutal, beautiful land, has been all but destroyed.

The writing itself is very fluid, the story ebbing and flowing as do the waters of the Thames and Hawkesbury Rivers. There are some rudimentary metaphors employed: Sydney Harbour is described at one point with 'shafts of sunlight sen[ding] pale fingers into its glassy green depths'. The metaphor is straightforward, but there is balance in the sentence. Oftentimes a metaphor is given - once they are living off the land these tend to feature darkness and the air - then a literal explanation immediately follows. Some descriptions are repeated, for example as the settlers and their slaves get used to their new life they more than once approach a confronting subject with a tone that is described as deliberately light and commonplace. I felt there were one or two continuity issues towards the end of the book as well.

This lightness of style was the crux of the contradictions I felt while reading it: it stopped me from feeling the force of the book's dedication to a cultural tragedy. The story was of too great import for the tone, for the casual way atrocities were planned, said and done. But this was the reality of the situation and, disturbingly, that reality is not far enough into the past.

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