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The Secret River

(Thornhill Family #1)

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  18,776 ratings  ·  1,764 reviews
In 1806 William Thornhill, an illiterate English bargeman and a man of quick temper but deep compassion, steals a load of wood and, as a part of his lenient sentence, is deported, along with his beloved wife, Sal, to the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia. The Secret River is the tale of William and Sal’s deep love for their small, exotic corner of the n ...more
Paperback, 334 pages
Published April 10th 2007 by Canongate U.S. (first published 2005)
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Lisa Phillips This site is only for reviews, but it does offer an opportunity to purchase the book for your Kindle.
Kim The Lieutenant was written in between the two Thornhill novels and deals with similar themes and loosely follows historical facts, however, it takes p…moreThe Lieutenant was written in between the two Thornhill novels and deals with similar themes and loosely follows historical facts, however, it takes place well before The Secret River around the arrival of The First Fleet in 1788. It a very good read and worthwhile reading along with The Secret River. (less)

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Average rating 3.81  · 
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I am an Australian of Anglo-Celtic and Northern European background, meaning that my ancestry is English, Cornish, Irish, German and Danish, with a bit of Scottish thrown in for good measure. I was born in Sydney, where I still live. More than five generations of my ancestors on both sides were born in Australia. This takes my roots in the country back to the early 19th century, which in white Australian terms is a long time. One of my ancestors was a convict transported from Ireland because he
Mar 04, 2011 rated it did not like it
Yes, this book is admirably researched and yes, the basic premise is interesting. But no, it is not particularly absorbing and no, it is not well written. I have a particular bias against writers that spend an inordinate amount of time on painstaking (read painful) descriptions of setting. The novel is 334 pages long - about 80 per cent of that is taken up with environmental minutiae (or at least it felt like it). Pages and pages of it - then perhaps a couple of lines of dialogue, hidden away in ...more
Tara Rock
Sep 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This riveting historical novel is the first of a trilogy about the Thornhill family set in the last decades of the eighteenth century. It is a story of destitution, a penal colony, the Aborigines, and always the Sea. The atmosphere and characters were captivating.
For years I’d wanted to have a go at this, and when Grenville was again nominated for an Australian Prime Minister’s Award for the third book in the trilogy (Sarah Thornhill) of which this novel is the first, I finally decided to begin at the beginning. This novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, and won numerous other awards when it came out, for good reason. It is old-time storytelling, whose characters who begin life poor and grubby on the streets of London early in the ninete ...more
The blurb:
After a childhood of poverty and petty crime in London's slums, William Thornhill is transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. But freedom can be bought, and when Thornhill claims a patch of land by the Hawkesbury River, the battle lines between the old and new inhabitants are drawn.
Quite a sterile introduction to an otherwise intense, passionate, and gripping tale of the earliest European settlers in Australia.

A haunting, captivating, atmospheric, well-writt
Jan 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I just noticed this novel on sale for $1.99 Kindle - was reminded that it is one of my all time favorites. It has been over a decade since I've read it but it has stayed with me. ...more
Dec 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is a type of book, where the more I think about it, the more I like it.

William Thornhill grew up poor in England. His parents died when he was young leaving him to are for his younger siblings. He takes a job as an apprentice with his childhood friend, Sal's parents. He has always liked Sal and as he learns a trade and sleeps under the same roof with her he falls in love with her. At the end of his apprenticeship he and Sal marry. Her parents also pass away. Tragedy seems to follow them. W
Sep 15, 2007 added it
The Secret River explores human instinct on a level that is visceral, honest... and depressing.

Or perhaps it is just Western instinct, rather than human instinct--and that is even more depressing.

The novel tracks a family of Brits at the turn of the 19th century as the family is deported to Australia for crimes committed by William Thornhill, husband and father, and as it engages the challenges of the wilderness. At its core, The Secret River is the story of the family's interactions with the a
From a young age William Thornhill knew what it was like to live rough and go with out and to feel hungry all the time. Living with his family in the slums of London along the Thames River he is forced to steal as a means of survival. He is only thirteen when his parents die which is when things start looking increasingly grim. William gets friendly with one of his sisters friends, Sarah (Sal) Middleton who is an only child. She may not have been the prettiest girl, but William thinks things loo ...more
Oct 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Secret River is a historical story about William Thornhill who was convicted of a crime in England and sentenced to death. However, William Thornhill wrote a letter saying how sorry he was for committing this offence and it was converted to transportation to Australia for his natural life. Readers of The Secret River will continue to follow the twist and turns to see what happens to William and Sarah Thornhill.

The Secret River is the first book I have read of Kate Grenville, and I enjoyed i
Jülie ☼♄ 
Jun 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Jülie ☼♄  by: Me.
I was given the box set of these three books for Christmas a few years back and though I liked the writing very much...they are not very big books ...I thought there was room for a bit more in-depth story about the Thornhills as a family and as individuals. I felt they were ultimately portrayed in a more villainous light than they actually appeared to be. Given the circumstances I believe it would have been an equally frightening experience for all concerned and that they (the Thornhills and th ...more
Angela M
Oct 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
I was moved and appalled and educated by this book .
Apr 06, 2014 rated it liked it
Having read a lot of five star reviews for this book I was hoping for something great but for me it turned out just ordinary. I really feel I have read this same kind of story so many times and some of them were better told than this one. It was a fairly short book and the story moved along well. Kate Grenville is like Bryce Courtney in that she seems to revel in the dirt and grime of that age and she was very into describing the atrocities committed between the settlers and the indigenous peopl ...more
Judith E
Oct 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Perfect, page turning storytelling about the clash between British colonists and the aboriginal population in early 1800 Australia. The transformation of both communities, replete with moral implications, is smoothly portrayed. It’s a gut wrenching and two sided situation and Greenville’s research and realistic portrayals are compelling. Really, a perfect historical fiction read.
This book already feels like such a classic to me even though it was published only 11 years ago. I have already seen the play and TV series based on it and now finally in reading the book, the story seems an even more powerful one of the cultural clash that happened all over Australia with the coming of the white man to this ancient continent and culture.

Kate Grenville is a very accomplished author and the tells this story of the ignorance and arrogance of the colonialists in invading the land
There is much that is good about Kate Grenville’s novel, but what impressed me most is her ability to get so deeply inside a character that she can show what the world looks like through his eyes. (Forgive the “he”: Grenville’s central character in this novel is a man.) Here is William Thornhill, Thames River lighterman:
After a time the mud-choked water and the ships it carried, thick on its back like fleas on a dog, became nothing more than a big room of which every corner was known. He came t
Jun 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015
This is one of those books I've meant to read for a long time, but never felt a strong urge until I saw the recent mini-series on TV. Sadly for me, it must have created an urge for just about everyone else to read the book as well so I had a couple of months waiting impatiently for a library copy.

I can't imagine how difficult life was for my early ancestors. Transported to new colony that very little was known about, and finding things all upside down. The seasons were different, the wildlif
When William Thornhill was a child in the slums of London, his family was incredibly poor…stealing just to survive. His sister Lizzie’s friend lived in Swan Lane, and she became like a sister to William. Sal Middleton became central in William’s life, and when his parents died, first his Mum, then his Dad soon afterwards, and left him and his siblings orphaned, he was able to spend time with Sal, in the warmth of her home, within the love of her parents.

Mr Middleton took William on as an apprent
Jun 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Readers of Australian fiction, historical novels, Aboriginal history
More special than I expected. I have always liked Kate Grenville's writing, but this book struck a chord with me because I'm familiar with the Hawkesbury area where the Australian part of the story takes place.

It is also particularly apt because our Prime Minister just said today that "I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled, or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land." His "scarcely settled" comment seems to have be
Aug 11, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2005
It was my pleasure to review this excellent book for Harper Collins Canada. Here's what I said:

The Secret River by Kate Grenville is historical fiction at it’s finest. It starts off as a quiet pondering story of the toils in poverty-stricken 19th century England where most must resort to stealing to survive. Here Grenville focused on her central character, William Thornhill who got caught thieving to feed his family. He was sentenced to death, however that was commuted to life in New South Wales
What a contrast in stories from my last read!

This book was a great story from the first moment to the last. I listened to this book via Blackstone Audio, narrated by Simon Vance.

The story begins early in 1800 and follows the life of Will Thornton from London to Sydney, Australia. He and his family are sent to live there. He goes because he was caught stealing. His wife and baby went because they had no where else to go and no one to support them.

It is a very complete story with great characte
Apr 18, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is no way to sugar-coat the shocking adventures of this novel. The hardship and horror of the Australian released prisoners trying to make a life for themselves and the Aborigines who want to keep their land will take your breath away. It is moving, emotional and also a distressful look at a slice of Australian history.

In late 1700s England, William Thornhill’s family slowly slide into a bleak life of destitution causing him to steal food to keep his family from starving. He is caught and
Daniel Shindler
May 26, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A good book that needs more.

The Secret River is a well written book that traces the journey of one family from London to Australia in the early 1800s. William Thornhill is a river man in London who is caught stealing and transported to Australia in lieu of being hanged. The novel chronicles the family’s struggles in London and in Australia as they attempt to carve out a life in a strange land. The first part of the novel vividly captures their struggles in London.When the narrative locates to Au
H.A. Leuschel
Jan 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a heart-breaking and thought-provoking read, so realistic in parts that I flinched and often welled up with emotion. Highly recommended!
Dec 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Rusalka by: Top Aussie Books Before You Die
This book kicked me. I was sitting there thinking about the human condition, and why we are such scared arseholes, and a baby chicken jumps up next to me, snuggles down and wraps her head around into my lap. Some times we aren't I guess. Some times chickens, who are a bit naive, love you to bits. So I think this book should be sold/lent/issued with a chicken. So you have something fluffy to love you while you read it.

That being said, the book was great. It was a book that tells you the story of
May 23, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Wow. I don't give one star reviews very often (usually I save them for books like 50 Shades of Grey). However this time I needed to make an exception, simply because it would be very hard to pinpoint a book that I found more boring than The Secret River. Absolutely nothing happened! (And I know I say that a lot, but this time I really mean it.)

Ohmigod and the characters! I hated them all - especially Sal whose only purpose, it seems, was to complain throughout the entire book. And yes, I'm sure
Missy J
Yam daisies.

"Fear could slip unnoticed into anger, as if they were one and the same."

I admit, it took me some time to get used to this book. First, to adjust to the language. Australian English can be quite tricky and I had to look up the dictionary several times (for instance, what does the word 'victuals' mean?). Secondly, I had to transport myself to the late 18th century/early 19th century frame of mind of British people. For some reason, I had to always remind myself that people back then
Ana Ovejero
Feb 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
This story is a narration of immigration, building your HOME in another place, leaving behind life to travel to the unknown. This is what happens to the Thornills.

William Thornill was born in one of the poorest places in England, seeing himself forced to steal in order to survive. Sal is his neighbour, who is truly his soulmate and who becomes his wife once he finishes his intership as a boatman with Sal's father. The river Thames is his life. However, he gets used to stealing parts of the shipm
Connie G
Jun 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This award winning novel by Kate Grenville tells the story of the settlement of the New South Wales colony which becomes Australia. William Thornhill, a boatman in London in 1806, gets convicted of robbery. He and his family are deported to New South Wales. The author writes wonderful descriptions of the colony, the new settlers and the native Aborigines, and the conflicts over the land. She has created characters that come so alive on the page that they are hard to leave at the end of the book.
Ron Charles
Dec 26, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The most remarkable quality of Kate Grenville's new novel is the way it conveys the enormous tragedy of Australia's founding through the moral compromises of a single ordinary man. "The Secret River" reminds us that national history may be recorded as a succession of larger-than-life leaders and battles, but in fact a country arises from the accretion of personal dreams, private sacrifices and, often, hidden acts of cruelty.

The special power of this novel took me off guard because several years
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Kate Grenville is one of Australia's best-known authors. She's published eight books of fiction and four books about the writing process. Her best-known works are the international best-seller The Secret River, The Idea of Perfection, The Lieutenant and Lilian's Story (details about all Kate Grenville's books are elsewhere on this site). Her novels have won many awards both in Australia and the UK ...more

Other books in the series

Thornhill Family (3 books)
  • The Lieutenant
  • Sarah Thornhill

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