Saturday 29 December 2012

Book Review: The Secret River by Kate Grenville

'London, 1806 - William Thornhill, happily wedded to his childhood sweetheart Sal, is a waterman on the River Thames. 

Life is tough but bearable until William makes a mistake, a bad mistake for which he and his family are made to pay dearly. 

His sentence: to be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. 

Soon Thornhill, a man no better or worse than most, has to make the most difficult decision of his life . . . 

The Secret River is a universal and timeless story of love, identity and belonging.'

Historical novel The Secret River was the sixth book I read as part of the AWW2012 Challenge. This was the first time I read a book by Kate Grenville and I must say that while she writes very descriptive prose, I did find myself struggling to get used to her style of writing. At times the descriptions were a little too detailed and abstract for me, but eventually I came to like her use of words.

As I currently live in London and love history I was drawn to the beginning of the novel which told of William and Sal's life in late-eighteenth century London. I enjoyed imagining what the city would have looked like then and I think Grenville did a wonderful job in painting an accurate historical picture. I even learnt a thing or two about old London and the Thames!

Once William and Sal are sent to Sydney I felt the story started to drag a bit. While I am certainly interested in early colonial Australia, and having lived in Sydney I like picturing how the harbour and settlement looked at that time, I wasn't as captivated by William's story at this point. I suppose I was desperate for something to happen. Which it surely does as the story continues on.

Once William begins to interact with the Aboriginal people the story took a very dark turn. This novel does a great job at highlighting the awful treatment the Indigenous Australians received from the British settlers. In fact, Grenville is so thorough and descriptive that it is all a bit too much to take at times. Even though this is a fictional story it is based on fact and it is hard to be reminded of such a dark part of our history. Knowing the Indigenous Australians were subjected to terrible cruelty makes me very sad.

It is that reason alone that I can not say I loved this novel. While Kate Grenville is a very talented writer and the story is perfectly executed, the subject was hard to take. I will remember this novel for a long time - mainly because it shocked me. Which is probably just what Grenville was trying to achieve. She has definitely brought some evils of Australian history out into the light and created a very thought-provoking book. In that respect it's a success! 


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