The Secret River – Kate Grenville

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?


Filed under Canongate Publishing, Kate Grenville, Review

38 responses to “The Secret River – Kate Grenville

  1. This is the only book of Grenville’s that I’ve read too. I really enjoyed it and it really highlighted another time that empire has trampled on indigenous people. I thought the contrast between the squalor of London and the hope of a better life down under worked really well too. Like you I too have a couple more by her in the TBR pile – The Lieutenant, plus another whose name escapes me at present!

    • I was shocked how quickly I read this as a) it has boats in it and b) I thought it would be historically harrowing which in parts it is and yet is immensly readable. I definitley need to read more of her work. The Lieutenant was one of the books I wanted to put forward for the NTTVBG but it wasnt yet in paperback sadly, well not sadly as I love my two chosen choices.

  2. I’ve got her whole back catalogue in my TBR, but the only one I have read is The River. I really enjoyed it. I think her portrayal of the clash between white australians and the native inhabitants is actually quite sympathetic, even though she was trying to show how terrible the aboriginals were treated.

    My review is here:

    • I think I am missing a few I have The Lieutenant and The Idea of Perfection am not sure which one to read next. As The Lieutenant deals with boats again I might try and get that one out the way next hahaha. I am sure she will make it a joy to read again though.

      I thought she was balanced to both parties, but didnt this book cause quite a stir in Australia or is that just the press pages?

  3. henrietta

    I really enjoyed the “Secret River” when I read it a while ago. the grey and gloom of London, transforming to the heat. Then the meetings with the Aboriginals, and all that follows.

    I have also read and would recommend “The idea of Perfection”. Again the Australian heat drips from the pages.

    • I have The Idea of Perfection in my TBR and think I am going to leave that for last, I think thats the one that won the Orange prize so will savour it for the winter maybe when I need some Australian heat again.

  4. I liked this when I read it about a year ago – maybe longer – it certainly gave me an insight into Australia which I hadn’t read aout before

  5. Like you, I’ve had this one on my TBR pile for ages. Everything I’ve heard about it has been good, yet I still haven’t picked it up. This review has bumped it up a few spots – it might even get read this year.

    • Its a book that I will be joining the ranks of people who recommend it I have to say. I do think though when you have a book like this on your TBR and so many people say its great it partly puts you off just in case and also makes you think ‘well as thats such a good one I can save that for a rainy day.

  6. Glad this book wowed you. I do have it on my TBR list, as many people have seemed to enjoy it. Thanks for the great review.

  7. Danica Rice

    I’m honestly not one for the historical stuff, nor boats, or slave stories… but I’m trying to be more out of the box with my TBR list this year, so maybe i SHOULD give this a whirl…..

    • I am not one for boats and can be fairly picky when it comes to historical, yet Grenville managed to make it all work for me. I am also expanding my bookish boundaries this year and I have to say so far its definately working!

  8. Danica Rice

    (oh and psst, I just ordered Brodeck’s Report and The Girl With The Glass Feet… I was having a nightmarish of a time finding anyone willing to take me to the downtown library so I just went ahead and bought ’em, as it is they’re not going to arrive until the 9th, though I hope earlier… we’ll see!)

    • Hoorah glad that you are joining in with these (though do feel free to join in with the other ones too) its weird to think that the NTTVBG will be up and running – and have been for some time – this time next week! Eek!

  9. farmlanebooks

    I LOVED The Secret River! I’m so pleased that you did too. After I read it I listened to this podcast in which Kate Grenville talks about the book. It made it even more special for me.

    For some reason I haven’t got round to reading any more of her books, but I’ve heard that The Idea of Perfect is just as good.

    • I listened to that Podcast on my iPod this morning as I have been saving it for after finishing the book and it proved most insightful while I was doing my Sainsbury’s shopping. I love the WBC!

  10. Like Jackie I too loved this one – it was actually the first Grenville book I read (I’m a pretty hopeless Australian reader aren’t I??!!) but I devoured it. I also read the book she wrote about the writing of this one where she talked about her own family history in coming to Australia etc… It was brilliant and I really enjoyed hearing Grenville talk about her process in writing the book. I also loved The Lieutenant – like you I am not a boat person in my reading at all but I would highly recommend this one if you enjoyed River.

    • Oooooh am liking the idea of the book behind the book very much indeed! One to look out for in the future down at the library thats for sure.

      Glad to hear that another non boat loving person is recommending The Lieutenant, I think that will be my next foray into Grenvilles work.

  11. Simon, if you ever feel distraught that you may be the last person to read a book, then just give me a ring and you will feel better! This sounds like a wonderful read, and just to think, it had been sitting neglected on your shelf all this time! I know I have a few of those as well, which is why I am in a book-buying ban at the moment as well.

    • Ha, Sandy you do make me laugh. You are ahed of me on some Du Maurier (your current read) so you arent always as behind as you think you are. The book buying ban is perfection for getting to books like this. I have been eyeing the next ‘should have read ages ago’ which is ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ and of course there is ‘Fingersmith’ oh and… I could go on and on!

  12. I LOVE this book. I love how I felt so sympathetic towards Thornhill even while I disliked him just because I “knew” him when he was younger. One of my favorite books, period.

    I did not like her The Lieutenant nearly as much.

    • Oh dear thats not a good sign about The Lieutenant, I won’t ask too much as to why you didnt like it in case it puts others off but what were the things that you dislkied, without any plot spoilers of course.

      The Secret River is a marvellous book isnt it? Isn’t it funny how someone can write a favourite book of ours and then write something you might not like.

  13. mee

    It sounds like a very important book for me to read, as I don’t know much about Australian history. I just heard of Kate Grenville recently, so I haven’t read any of her books. I’ll look for this one. Thank you.

    • Definately a book that is a must read for anyone who is interested in Australia and who likes Australian fiction without a doubt! You will have to let us know how you get on with it, this would be perfect for your Australian challenge.

  14. I have read about three quarters of this book and loved it. But then I stopped. Why? Because I knew it was going to get really upsetting and I couldn’t face it at the time. That sounds absurdly weedy but it is true, and though I suppose I could have picked it up again when feeling stronger I never have.

    • Oh Harriet, I am not sure if I think that is very wise and sensible or not!?! I dont think the book will have the impact if you dont get all the way to the very end and that whats great writing becomes astonishing, if slightly harrowing, writing.

  15. I loved this book – I think Kate Grenville is such a strong author, although I think I preferred The idea of perfection.

  16. I just think that in The Secret River, the characters were so fully developed and complicated, and I didn’t feel that way about the characters in The Lieutenant, which really disappointed me. I didn’t feel nearly so invested in their lives. Here’s my review, if you want a more detailed version:

    • Thanks for the link Aarti, I will read it once I have read the book (I have had a scan) in full depth. It’s interesting how characters can make a book for us isnt it, The Secret River definitley has those, and also of course a poigniancy (I think I have spelt that wrong).

  17. The Secret River is very much a book I’ve had for ages and still haven’t go round to it. Maybe your review will jog me on to reading it.

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  19. JoV

    Finished reading the Secret River today and it blew my mind away…. It will a book that I chew on for a long time after I have put it down.

    I think I’m going to read her “Idea of Perfection” next!

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