Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, plenty of novels don’t fit squarely into only one genre category. And there are many literary novels that can easily be considered crime novels (and vice versa). This may make it harder to classify novels for marketing and other purposes. But it certainly can add to the richness and diversity of what’s available. Let’s take a look at one such novel today, and turn the spotlight on Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.
The real action in the story begins in 1806. William Thornhill is a poor bargeman who can barely feed his family. One day, he succumbs to temptation when he gets the opportunity to take a load of wood – cargo that he can sell. He’s caught, and at first, it’s assumed that he’ll be executed. Instead, he’s sentenced to transportation to Australia.
Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children board the Alexander and are taken to Sydney Harbour. The Thornhills arrive, and right away, have to find ways to make a living. Thornhill soon finds work with Alexander King, who hires him to transport casks filled with liquid refreshment out of Sydney Cove and into a nearby bay, where they will escape the attention of customs inspectors. For her part, Sal opens a makeshift pub, and the family manages to make a living.
Of course, there’ve been people living on this land for many thousands of years. So, it’s not long before there’s tension between the new arrivals and the Aborigines. Still, things generally seem calm. Before long, Thornhill gets a job delivering goods for a man named Thomas Blackwell, who owns the River Queen. He learns to navigate the Hawkesbury River, and as he does, he begins to see some of the ugly side of interactions between the colonists and the people who’ve always been there. He tries to stay out of it all, but that’s well nigh impossible.
Then, Thornhill finds exactly the piece of land he’s been dreaming of, right by the river. Sal’s not eager to leave Sydney, where she’s gotten settled in. But she agrees to go along with the plan. This, of course, will bring the family into direct conflict with the Aborigines. As settlement continues, there are, indeed, confrontations between the new arrivals and the Aborigines, and some terrible crimes are committed. As a white man, Thornhill is expected to support his fellow colonists. But he has no desire for butchery. Still, he’s found the land he wants more than anything else. As he, Sal, and their children begin to build their new home, Thornhill sees that, if he’s going to hold onto the land he’s come to love, he’ll have to get his hands bloody, too. In the end, the Thornhills claim their land and build their home – but at a terrible cost.
This novel is historical fiction. The action takes place in the first decades of the 19th Century, and Grenville places the reader in that era. There are marked differences among the social classes, and this story’s focus is mostly those who are in the lower social strata. Life in London is a struggle for survival if one doesn’t have money, and it’s not really any easier in Sydney. Still, the Thornhills discover that in Australia, a person can get land, build a good house, and have what most people call success even without an expensive education or the ‘right’ family name. In essence, Grenville shows, through one family’s experience (rather than through ‘information dump’) what colonial life was like in Australia. Grenville also places the reader geographically. The story takes place in both London and New South Wales, and Grenville uses the details of each to contrast them.
One of the most important elements in the novel is the vast set of differences between the Aboriginal people and the Europeans. The two groups have very different cultures, traditions, ways of looking at land use, and so on. So, right from the beginning of the novel, there’s a foretaste of the ugliness that will arise. And, as the novel moves on, the suspense builds as the two sides encounter each other. There are serious crimes committed, and Grenville doesn’t gloss over them. Readers who dislike violence will notice this.
The relations between the Europeans and the Aborigines are complicated, and Grenville acknowledges that, too. And because of this complexity, there is some moral ambiguity in the novel. Thornhill, for instance, is not a mindless brute. He has no desire for bloodshed. And he’s not the only one. Plenty of people on both sides would like to work out some reasonable way for the two groups to co-exist. But there are also many people on both sides who are willing to go to extremes, including real brutality. And even people, such as Thornhill, who would just as soon avoid bloodshed, find that they are drawn into it anyway. In this way, Grenville shows how violence can spiral out of control.
Another, related, aspect of the novel has to do with law enforcement. This is the early 1800s, and there isn’t really a regular police force in New South Wales. There’s much more of what people often call ‘frontier justice.’ It’s vigilantism, but it stands in for the professional police forces of some other places. This is important, because it impacts the way the characters behave. One can’t call the police when there’s a perceived threat, so people defend themselves. They also band together when there’s trouble. On the one hand, that has tragic consequences. On the other, people help one another, and that creates a sense of community.
The Secret River is the story of one family whose history reflects some of the larger events of the day. It features complex issues of cultural contact and confrontation that leads to crime, as well as moral dilemmas. And it takes place in distinct London and colonial New South Wales settings. But what’s your view? Have you read The Secret River? What elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 5 December/Tuesday, 6 December – The Rim of the Pit – Hake Talbot
Monday, 12 December/Tuesday, 13 December – Cop Town – Karin Slaughter
Monday, 19 December/Tuesday, 20 December – We Are the Hanged Man – Douglas Lindsay