In The Spotlight: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River

SpotlightHello, All,

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


Filed under Kate Grenville, The Secret River

26 responses to “In The Spotlight: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River

  1. Another great spotlight Margot and yes, I like the sound of this, particularly the switch between life in London and Sydney and especially the way that justice was meted out!

    • Those aspects of the novel are definitely interesting, Cleo. And I think Grenville handles both the different locatoins and the time period quite effectively. If you try this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  2. Another good spotlight Margot.

    I remember reading this for my book club when it came out here (about a decade ago I think) and we were split down the middle on whether we liked it or not. There was (and still is) a bit of criticism that the book doesn’t give th Aboriginal people a voice. It doesn’t gloss over what the white settlers do to them but we don’t really see things from their perspective. I’m not sure that she needed to tell that story (the book’s roots where that Grenville was researching her own family history) but this gap got some people off side. Interestingly she has since said that her choice was deliberate – she didn’t feel like she should be telling the Aboriginal side of the story – an interesting reflection now that Lionel Shriver has made cultural appropriation by writers such a hot topic.

    • It’s funny you would mention that, Bernadette, about this novel not giving Aboriginal people voices. I noticed that the first time I read it, and wondered about it. I can see how people would be put off by that; as I say, I wondered, myself. But I see Grenville’s point that she doesn’t have the right to tell the Aboriginal story. The whole question of cultural appropriation is, as you say, a hot topic. It’s also a difficult one with a lot of complexity to it, and I’m glad it’s become a topic for discussion. It’s not settled, and I think it’s something authors need to think about. I give Grenville credit for reflecting on the issue and making a choice (rather than not even considering the issue). ‘Food for thought,’ for which thanks. And thanks for the kind words.

  3. I haven’t read this one yet, but it is sitting on my Kindle after reading a review of it several months ago from Rose at Rose Reads Novels, who is Australian and felt it read as very authentic. Thanks for the reminder – another one I shall shove up the list!

    • It certainly felt authentic to me, FictionFan. I’m not Australian, so I can’d really judge, of course. But it felt that way. If you do get a chance to read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it; there really is a solid sense of time and place to it, I think.

  4. Good piece, Margot. It’s a while since I read it and it was a pleasure to be reminded of a distinctive and very fine novel.

  5. I haven’t read this but it sounds like I’d enjoy it, Margot. Another to add to my ever-growing list. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I enjoyed your spotlight. For me, it’s more historical than I like, but you always make books sound delightful.

    • That’s very kind of you, Sue – thank you. I’m glad you enjoy these posts. This one does have a strong taste of history, so it won’t be everyone’s cuppa (but what book is?). If you ever do decide to go out of your ‘comfort zone,’ I hope you’ll enjoy this one.

  7. This sounds very fascinating. I liked hearing the dilemma in the comments re the aboriginal voice being missing. As someone who is writing a mystery set on a reservation that is something I worry about – but what does one do? I have made the protagonist a white woman who works on the reserve – I don’t purport to tell of the aboriginal side of things – but like me – this woman is knowledgeable about the Innu and sometimes frustrated (hey – like me). Am I appropriating someone else’s story. Well you could think of it that way but it is also a story of those who truly involve themselves for good or for bad. Do I not write of men in case I appropriate their stories? Or those who are rich or poor or gay or differentially abled? I must go over and see what Lionel Shriver has to say. I always liked her books. At any rate, not to get off topic, it sounds like a great read. I’m in!

    • Your comments aren’t off-topic at all, Jan. You have real insight into this issue of appropriation, and writing of experiences within cultures not one’s own. It’s not an easy issue to address, actually. I think you’ve found a brilliant way to go about telling your stories – using a perspective you truly understand. I know authors such as Angela Savage have done the same. Her protagonist is a white woman, born in Australia. But she lives and works in Thailand. I think approaches like that can be effective – I really do. And I’m eager to read your work.

      Back to the book: I do think you’d like this one.

      • Thanks so much Margot! While you were answering this (gawd you are quick!) I went and read that speech by Shriver – what a completely refreshing smart rant that was. I often find I like smart people – am I appropriating them!? I do think liberal political correctness is killing discourse and hope we don’t have to go as far as the trumpeter to get some balance back.

        • The Shriver speech is certainly ‘food for thought.’ Whether one agrees with the main points or not, it really is an important topic that authors need to think about. That reflection will inform the writer’s creativity.

  8. Oh, goodness, your description of vigilante justice immediately reminded me of the new book Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, which is making a splash right now because people feel that it will explain why so many Americans voted for Trump. I read the book and disagree that it will answer the questions of anti-Trump folks; however, I did learn that hillbilly justice is a live and well (and that my family practices it….which I did not realize was abnormal).

    • Oh, I keep hearing about that book, GtL, and I’ve seen several interviews with the author. I must confess, I hadn’t thought of that real-life example when I was writing this post, but it certainly is parallel, isn’t it? And from what I understand, that book really does shed light on that aspect of that culture. Interesting, and I’m glad you brought it up.

      • I didn’t feel like the book shed as much light on anything as everyone raving on NPR said it would. Then I realized that my family is about 50% hillbilly, so I didn’t learn much. When I say 50% I mean that while my immediate family doesn’t entirely resemble Vance’s, I have grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. who really, really, really…really do.

        • Oh, that is interesting, GtL. And what I also find worth mentioning is the difference between what the NPR and other critics had to say, and what your experience was. I’ve had that happen to me, too. Critics rave about a book, or sometimes pan it, actually. Then I read it, and have a different reaction. Part of it is, of course, individual taste. But I think it’s more than that, to be honest.

        • I think Hillbilly Elegy is an informative book; I simply learned I didn’t need to be informed about that part of America 😂

  9. Hi Margot, i looked this up & it appears that this is part of a trilogy. Do you plan on reading the other 2 books in the series?

    • It is, indeed, part of a trilogy, Anne. The other two novels, for those interested, are The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill. I do plan on reading the other two; this one got me interested…

  10. Very interesting Spotlight on a book I have heard of but not read. The topic you and Bernadette look at above in the comments is fascinating and thought-provoking, and has no easy answers…

    • Thanks, Moira. And no, I don’t think it has any easy answers, either. I do think, though, that authors need to consider it, work out how they’re going to best tell the story in the most authentic way, and then do it in such a way that also tells the story well. A tall, tall order with no prescription, so to speak. But I do think Grenville’s work is engaging and historically authentic – or so it seems to me.

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