You know when you have a book that you have had for ages and ages, everyone has told you that “you simply must read it” and yet you haven’t? We have all got some of these on our TBR’s I would imagine? ‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville is one such book for me (though I will admit there are a few) and finally I have managed to get around to reading it “at long last” I can hear some of you cry. It might actually be like preaching to the converted to discuss what this book is about as I have a feeling that most people have already given it a whirl. However, maybe as I hadn’t read it until now there might be some more people out there who don’t know what this book is all about.
The Secret River opens with a kind of prologue called ‘Strangers’ as William Thornhill arrives fresh off The Alexander in New South Wales, Australia as one of the convicts sent to serve a life sentence in 1806. On dry land he comes across one of the aboriginals a man ‘as black as the air itself’ and what follows is the scene of two men, neither understanding the other sussing each other out. Now this opening scene appeared rather random to me because three pages in you are in the poverty stricken streets of London in the late 1700’s. As the book develops in its different parts you soon come to understand the significance of it as The Secret River is not just about the first convicts to Australia, it is also about racism and a rather dark time in Australia’s history as men try and stake their claims on the continent and in doing so tragic and horrific events unfold.
What I think that Grenville has done in this book which is incredibly clever is give you the back story of William Thornhill and his wife Sal so that you have seen them struggle and fight through poverty, sickness, death and despair through their lives in London and so you come to like them. Therefore when they then become embroiled in situations in the future you have a real difficulty as a reader to then separate the people and the circumstances and the conclusions they bring. I can’t say any more than that as wouldn’t want to give the story away; it did make me really think though as well as affecting, horrifying and unnerving me.
I am aware that I might not do this book justice as if I say to much I culd ruin it for anyone who hasnt read it yet and isn’t aware of the story so am being a bit vaguer than normal. I was impressed how quickly I was pulled into this book and ended up reading it in four sittings. I can be a little hit and miss with historic fiction yet before I knew it I had gotten through half of the book. As I said I liked the characters of Will and Sal and despised some of Grenville’s well drawn vile characters like Smasher who has to be read to be believed. I also felt that Grenville tried to balance the story as best she could by putting you in the minds of both those arriving in Australia and doing anything to make their way and survive and those already in Australia who wanted to keep what was theirs and survive.
If that wasn’t enough Grenville even did the unthinkable and made me enjoy a book that has a lot of ‘boatish’ things going on in it, something I didn’t think was possible. I did have one small issue I must mention to make this a wholly rounded review and that was some of the characters names. I found it distracted me (and if you spotted this you will know why though email me don’t leave in the comments) which sounds a small thing but would draw me out of the story now and again, but a very small qualm overall.
All in all I am really, really pleased that I have finally read The Secret River, if you haven’t read it yet do give it a try. Its finding a book like this that is one of the reason’s why I am so pleased some of my resolutions were ‘whim reading’ and ‘no book buying’… look at what gems I have been missing. I will definitely be reading more of Grenville’s work in the future (I have a few more on the TBR), what would you recommend next? If you have already read The Secret River what did you make of it?