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"The Secret River" by Kate Grenville

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Will Thornhill, a down-on-his-luck London waterman (boat taxi pilot) in the last years of the 18th century, struggles to feed his very young family. Kate Grenville shows graphically that the odds are too long, just as they are for countless other lower-class Londoners at the time. Will turns inevitably to petty thievery, is caught, tried, and sentenced to be executed. Instead, his ever-loyal wife succeeds in getting the sentence reduced to transportation - the authorities banish Thornhill and his family to Australia in 1806.


After Will's arrival in Australia, the story takes flight. His wife Sal opens a grog shop and the family begins to scrape together a few shillings. Will returns to the boat trade, and they begin to build some wealth. He finally buys out a former employer, and becomes a man of property. Along the way, he convinces Sal that they can and should be landowners along the river, and the stage is set for the drama that plays out. The other settlers along the river wish to drive the aboriginals out and expand their inchoate empires. Thornhill and his brood have the opposite view, down deep. They have no reason to want the Aboriginies out - they have no grievances on either side. However, hatred and events gain momentum, and Thornhill takes part in a skirmish at a friend's settlement in which several are killed on both sides. The native people clear out of the area after that, leaving the white settlers alone. Thornhill becomes wealthy from the river trade, dealing in farm goods and shipping.

But Thornhill has a secret river, living alongside the actual Hawkesbury where he has made his fortune. He has kept his complicity in the deadly fight with the aboriginals a secret from Sal, and it has allowed his family to flourish. He recoginzed the natives as a creative, family-oriented, affable lot, and the battle that made his fortune possible haunts him. He watches the landscape and the river from his villa, looking, and waiting, for something he knows will never come. There will never be a return of the Aboriginies he knew in his early days on the river, just as there will never be redemption for his acts of violence.

Ms. Grenville tells this saga in unblinking language. Her facility with Thornhill's inward journey is sure and true, and lends weight to this weighty narrative. This piece won the Orange Prize in the UK, and it's easy to see why. It encapsulates in one piece of fiction the internal and external conflict surrounding the inescapable poverty of 18th-century London, and the displacement and annihilation of Australia's native people. The book offers a highlight in the loving Thornhill couple, a full and nuanced relationship with an inward odyssey of its own. Ms. Grenville delivers all this in vivid terms, in knowing language, framed in emotional and economic reality. A terrific, memorable, and highly-recommended book.
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