Braving the New World


The Secret River, by Kate Grenville
The Secret River is the best book I’ve read in quite a while.

Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about the book. This isn’t a new publication; it was published in 2005. Still, it’s a real find and should be talked about – a lot. Grenville, an Australian writer has hardly written anything that isn’t praiseworthy, and this book, despite a minor wart or two, is one such. Uniquely, the book is a fictionalized version of the author’s family history, although she doesn’t make her family lineage clear.

The novel is largely the story of William Thornhill, a bargeman working the River Thames in London. Like most men of that trade, the work is seasonal and physically demanding, and it pays so little that most bargemen steal from their customers to make ends meet. William does, and is sentenced to be hung. Instead, he, his wife Sal, and their child are exiled to the rustic environs of Australia. Sal continues to have children, and they begin to make a living in Sydney, but William yearns to own land, so he and the family sail up a nearby river and stake out a claim to a hundred acres, on which they grow corn.
But there’s a complication: they have settled on land favored by the indigenous black people. Soon this leads to conflicts and outright war.


Grenville’s prose is persistently elegant here, and her interspersing of dialogue amid narrative depictions of the land and people of Australia is vivid and sensory. If I have a criticism or two—and here I’m struggling—she could have done a little more in depicting William’s and Sal’s interior life. Too, the denouement is a bit overdone and repetitive. But these are very minor quibbles in a finely wrought novel.

My rating 18 of 20 stars


Visit my website here. Within it you’ll find more on books and events that matter to me — and possibly to you. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.


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