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Thornhill Family #1

The Secret River

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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 new world, and William’s gradual realization that if he wants to make a home for his family, he must forcibly take the land from the people who came before him. Acclaimed around the world, The Secret River is a magnificent, transporting work of historical fiction.

334 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2005

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About the author

Kate Grenville

40 books645 followers
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, several have been made into major feature films, and all have been translated into European and Asian languages.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,996 reviews
Profile Image for Kim.
426 reviews507 followers
December 18, 2012

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 committed a petty theft. There's every chance that I have more than one convict ancestor. My ancestors were not wealthy people. They have been farmers and shopkeepers and salespeople and musicians and housepainters. My family history attaches me to this place. It is in my blood. Even though I am resolutely urban in my background and my preferences - both my parents, all of my grandparents and most of my great-grandparents were born within the ten kilometres or so which separates the centre of Sydney and the beaches in its eastern suburbs - I am attached to the Australian landscape. The high, bright blue sky, the beaches and the rivers, the scent of gum trees and native flowers and the sound of native birds are all part of me. As much as I love travelling and as much as I can appreciate other, softer landscapes, the one which surrounds me is the one which moves me the most.

For all of these reasons, this is a novel which speaks to me. It probably should be compulsory reading for all Australians and certainly for all Australians whose ancestors arrived in colonial times. This is their story and it is in many respects an ugly one.

The central character, William Thornhill, is a boatman on the Thames, who lives in grinding poverty with his wife and child. In 1806, having been convicted of a theft committed to feed his family, Thornhill's death sentence is commuted to transportation to the penal colony of New South Wales. Over time, Thornhill achieves the status of an emancipated convict and settles on a stretch of land on the Hawkesbury River. In this environment, he, his family and other white settlers come into contact with the local indigenous inhabitants. The indigenous people have no reason to leave the area just because settlers move in, planting crops and building huts and fences. However, the fences cut off their food sources and this makes conflict inevitable. Ultimately, Thornhill has to decide what he is prepared to do to keep the land which has become his obsession.

Fundamentally, the novel is about the Australian colonial experience. The title has two meanings. To Thornhill, the Hawkesbury River is a "secret river" because its entrance from the bay into which it feeds is hard to find. However, it's also a reference to the phrase used by anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner in a lecture in 1968 when he described the brutal acts of genocide against the indigenous people by British colonisers and the subsequent silence about these events, as "the secret river of blood in Australian history".

The narrative describes some horrific events. It also suggests that these events occurred not because evil people wanted to commit unspeakable acts, but because of a total lack of understanding between the white and the indigenous communities. These were groups of people not simply separated by language, but by their entire way of life. The indigenous people had no concept of private ownership and did not build fences. From the point of view of the settlers, this meant that the indigenous people had no relationship with the land. Nothing could be further from the truth and the colonisation of this land meant the dispossession of the original inhabitants. The effects of this dispossession reverberate more than 200 years later.

Grenville creates a strong sense of time and place. While the narrative is exclusively from Thornhill's point of view, she allows the reader to understand how the conflict affected both sides. Just as the indigenous people had nowhere to go when their land was taken away from them, poor settlers (in the early days most of them, like Thornhill, were emancipated convicts) also had nowhere to go. They could not return to England and they had to make the best of what they had here. For them, making a living from the land was an economic imperative, a matter of life and death for themselves and their families. But rather than learn about the land from those who already lived there - and who would have been prepared to share it - they imposed their ways, with devastating consequences.

A few days after finishing the novel, I am still haunted by it. I can understand that the narrative will not have the same affect on those who are not connected to the history it tells. But I feel part of that history and Grenville's work really speaks to me. I almost took away a star because of a phrase which was so frequently used that it started to irritate me, but that impulse subsided after I finished reading. My lasting impression will be of the atmosphere Grenville created and the insight and sensitivity she demonstrated in telling the story.

I decided to read the novel now in anticipation of seeing this theatrical adaptation of the novel next month. The play has been adapted from the novel by one of my favourite playwrights and will be directed by one of my favourite directors. I'm looking forward to seeing it more than ever.
Profile Image for Adina ( On hiatus until next week) .
827 reviews3,228 followers
April 1, 2021
I finished this novel more than 1 month ago but for some reason or other I preferred to write other reviews before this one. The postponement gave me the opportunity to see how my memory of the novel and my enjoyment fades with (a little) time. If initially I was thinking about 4*, I think I will settle with 3.

In short, the novel is about the colonisation of Australia by British convicts to the detriment of locals aboriginal population. William Thornhill is arrested for stealing and is saved from hanging at the last moment. The salvation comes as a trip to Sydney where he settles together with his family. Each convict had to have a guardian (in this case his wife) but he soon realises he could get a pardon from His Majesty if he worked hard enough. He could even choose a piece of land and become its owner. Being a land owner became his dream but in order to achieve his goal he had enter in conflict with the locals.

The writing was beautiful, quiet, and maybe a bit too descriptive. I liked reading the novel but I did not feel the need to come back to it after closing the book. The book was a good insight in the mentality of the early settlers in Australia and it also tried to delve into the damage and hurt it provoked to the Aboriginal population.
Profile Image for Rod.
3 reviews4 followers
March 5, 2011
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 italics as if it were something to be ashamed of. The characters mumble their way through the book, and no-one has anything of significant interest to say. As a protagonist, Will Thornhill is the biggest 'dumb-arse' I've ever had the misfortune to come across. Sure, Grenville is probably being ruthlessly true to historical fact - colonial Australia was populated by simple-minded petty criminals and their ignorance in this exotic setting is not far-fetched. But that doesn't necessarily make for great fiction and what was needed here was for the main character, at least, to leap-frog this cultural intertia and actually LEARN something. The ham-fisted Thornhill lacks any developent whatsoever - he has no real insight and experiences no epiphany. By the end of the book, Grenville purports him to be a wealthy landowner, whilst I would have probably placed him into a sheltered workshop. But I did at least empathise on one point. As I laboured towards the closing pages, I also was more than ready for my Ticket of Leave.
142 reviews85 followers
September 6, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Debra .
2,284 reviews35k followers
November 13, 2017
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. With an infant and wife to care for, he begins a job and learns he does not make enough to care for everyone and steals some wood. He is sentenced to the penal colony of New South Wales. His wife and son go with him to Australia. When they dock, he sees his newborn son as his wife has given birth while on the voyage (they travel on different parts on the ship as he is a prisoner and she is not).

After they arrive in Syndey they find a way to make it 50 miles north and William claims 100 acres as his. Sal does not like this new land, she is uncomfortable but promises her husband she will give it 5 years. During this time more children are born and Sal deals with loneliness and the hope that she will return home in 5 years time.

In the every beginning of the Novel, William awakens to find a man standing in his hut - naked holding a spear. The man tells him "Be off". I liked the entire passage's description. I think it does a great job of showing how both the Aborigines and the colonists feel about each other. The Aborigines have always lived in that area, it was theirs, their children's. It is their home. Then comes in Colonists who proudly proclaim the land as theirs. Atrocities occur on both sides. Aborigines are mistreated. Colonists get speared.

Sal and William hear the stories. They have contact with the Aborigines. Sal makes a trade with the women, her bonnet for their crude bowls. The Thornhills believe that they can live on this land without incident. They do not want to treat the native people as other colonist have done so. They refuse to take actions against them as their peers have done. They do not know what to make of the naked people. I like how William thought that the Aborigines in their nakedness and their way of life are more free than he has ever been in his life.

This book also delves into what do good people do to protect what is theirs? Even though we hear Williams voice, I feel the Author did a good job showing us the plight of the Aborigine. It would have been nice to have more of that voice told; however. At what point does a good man, make the decision to act against his morals and values? By the end of the book, William is faced with that question. He wants to be successful in his life and to care for his family. Both sides feel entitled to the land. Neither side has anywhere else left to go. By the end of the book, this issue of land ownership comes to a head. The book began as a romance between William and Sal and ended with a struggle of survival.

This is book has some disturbing scenes _ people poisoned by the "green powder", a woman kept as a sex slave, physical attacks, etc.

See more of my reviews at www.openbookpost.com
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,412 followers
December 19, 2015
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 nineteenth century, get “sent down” to Australia in a convict ship, earn their freedom, and scratch out an existence in that unholy land.

Grenville’s descriptions of early nineteenth century London evoke a world crammed with humanity living cheek-by-jowl on crooked cobbled streets, cold and grimy with coal dust. Grenville contrasts this with the dry heat of Australia, blazing with sun, and the wide open, unsettled (and unsettling) bigness of it. The Australian Aborigine is caught to perfection in her words…the thinness, the looseness of limbs, the blackness, the brows, the teeth, the joy, the dignity and fierceness. Her language is Dickensian, her story that of Australia.

Parts of this book are difficult to read, they seem so cruel. That man is a fearful and fearsome creature, we know. It is just painful to see ourselves through that glass so darkly reflected. I can hardly recommend this title enough. I have loved the writing of Kate Grenville forever, it seems. She has the potential for greatness, and while some of her books may not quite reach that level, this one does. I listened to this book on Blackstone Audio, narrated by the excellent Simon Vance.

For those who come away from this book with that breathless sense of needing to know how she did that, she has written a memoir about writing the novel called Searching For The Secret River: A Writing Memoir. I believe it took her as long to come down from writing it as it will take us to absorb it. I look forward to enjoying her skills again.
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,164 reviews512 followers
August 31, 2017
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-written saga of two worlds colliding in an uncompromising wilderness around the Hawkerville river near Perth, Australia. The atmosphere was intense, from the first part in the London slums where misery was a given at birth, to the harsh reality of being dumped as convicts on the shores of Australia.

What a life's journey it has been! Historical fiction in which a part of history is told with a colorful cast of characters populating a story of suffering, endurance, persistence, cruelty, and survival. In the end there was happiness of some sorts, given the circumstances and effort it took to reach that point where the final period could be added to the end of the book.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,465 reviews563 followers
October 11, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Carol.
353 reviews330 followers
June 18, 2021
This Secret River was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It takes place in the early 19th century when New South Wales was a penal colony of England (1778-1823). The author’s inspiration was her research into the life of her own convict great-great-great-grandfather.

The story recounts the life of Will Thornhill, a convict transported to New South Wales after avoiding a death sentence in London. He is accompanied by his wife, Sal and two small children.

After serving his term, Thornhill lays claim to a parcel of land originally occupied by the native aborigines. Both parties are initially curious and react passively towards each other. Eventually, feelings intensify as Will Thornhill and the Aboriginal people become confrontational.

Thornhill is a man incapable of grasping any notion that he is not the true owner of his hand-picked parcel of land. He considers the Aborigines inferior which allows him to rationalize and even justify the escalating violence and ultimate massacre of the indigenous people.

It is compelling historical fiction similar in themes with settler colonialism accounts of the American West. As the story evolved, I was unnerved with a sense of impending dread and shattered with parts of the outcome. Recommended.
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,690 reviews451 followers
September 24, 2022
"No one had ever spoken to him of how a man might fall in love with a piece of ground."

This award winning novel tells the story of the settlement of the New South Wales colony in Australia. William Thornhill, an impoverished boatman in London, was convicted of the theft of a load of timber in 1806. He was deported to the New South Wales penal colony with his family as a way to avoid swinging from the gallows. After serving his time in Sydney, Will claimed a beautiful piece of land along the Hawkesbury River in the frontier. However, this was land that the Aboriginal people had loved and considered their territory for years.

Kate Grenville wrote wonderful descriptions of the hard life of a boatman on the Thames, the relationship between Will and his wife, the difficulties of a new settler, and the confrontations with the indigenous people. The characters come so alive on the page that they are hard to leave at the end of the book.
Profile Image for Peter.
50 reviews154 followers
September 15, 2007
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 aborigines--interactions both peaceful and confrontational--and the conflict between, on one side, the family's desire to establish a settlement of their own and on the other side, the relationship already shared between the aborigines and the land.

The theme that guides this conflict is how different people provide for themselves and for their families, and the novel gradually reveals two central models for doing so. The first is the growing fetish for materialism, isolation, and ownership among most of the British settlers. And the second is the communal, minimalist existence of the Aborigines.

Naturally, the efficient and simple existence of the "blacks"--as they are often called in the novel--reveals the moral turpitude of the settlers. We (of European descent) are embarrassed by the (male) settlers who show little ability to reason, empathize, cooperate, and/or communicate. Most of the British characters are dumb or ineffective; they victimize others and act selfishly and violently. Their actions are formulaic and predictable, right up to the end.

But here's the rub.

At every step there's a sense that their brute actions are inevitable and that the result--if we search our baser instincts, however "morally" repulsive and inhumane the means may be--is desirable. The driving away of the aborigines for the sake of establishing a safe homestead feels like the inexorable march of the West. It feels safe. It feels alpha.

The novel reveals the inherent ugliness of this instinct.

I was frustrated by the idiotic behavior of many characters' actions, and then I felt resigned to the inevitability of the past two centuries of history. It's a sad, sad tale of Western expansion and waste. And the romance between William and Sal, his wife, unfortunately does little to assuage the ill feelings. It felt cold, rather than heroic.

Yet, there's something real in this book; it taps into a visceral and unspoken impulse, something too ugly and complicated to address casually. That makes The Secret River valuable, even if it is not always pleasurable.

Do I recommend it? Sure. Loosely. It's interesting cultural history.
Would I teach it? Mmm... As a summer reading selection, but not chapter by chapter.
Lasting impression: Transparent, brutal men; clever women; inevitable march of the West; failure of humanity.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,256 reviews49 followers
November 20, 2021
My first experience of reading Kate Grenville was her Women's Prize winning The Idea of Perfection, which left me rather lukewarm but feeling I should give her another chance, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this lively and sometimes brutal historical novel.

The first part is a well-researched evocation of the lives of the poor of London in late 18th century. William Thornhill works his way up from a very poor childhood to become a waterman on the Thames, but loses his fragile prosperity when his father-in-law and former employer dies. Having lost his own boat he is forced to work as a hired hand, but can only make ends meet by criminal means, and is eventually caught stealing timber from his employer. A sentence of life is commuted to transportation to Australia.

On arrival in the Sydney settlement his luck begins to turn, firstly his assigned master is his wife, and they earn enough money by selling alcohol and working on the river to buy a boat strong enough to trade on the Hawkesbury river. Here William sees a piece of land he wants to settle, and the real story of how this settlement was stolen from the aboriginals is told - an uneasy give and take coexistence gives way to a savage confrontation that allows Thornhill and his family to prosper and live a life way beyond anything they could achieve in London.

The germ of the story comes from Grenville's own family history - one of her ancestors was a London waterman who was transported, but the real message of the book is what was lost as the land was taken from its supposedly primitive owners.
Profile Image for Sharon.
987 reviews193 followers
August 3, 2016
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 look a whole brighter when she is around.

Not long after Williams parents died Mr Middleton takes William on as an apprentice where he'll learn to be a waterman and at the end of his seven year apprenticeship he'll be a freeman of the Thames River. Having a great love for the river and not being afraid of hard work, William is in his element and it seems life has taken a turn for the better. William also knows that once he has a trade behind him he'll be able to marry Sal and settle down and start a family of their own.

Seven years on and everything is going just the way William had hoped it would. He married Sal and they have their first child William (Willie). They couldn't be happier until one day when William is caught stealing wood and from here their lives will start to go down hill very quickly. William is thrown into The Old Bailey where he is sentenced to hang. Sal does all she can to stop this from happening. Eventually he is granted a pardon for his crime on the condition he be transported to the Eastern part of New South Wales for the term of his sentence.

In 1806 William arrives in Sydney Cove where he will serve his sentence with his wife and growing family. William is determined that one day he'll own a piece of land, build a house and provide for his wife and children. This won't be so easy as he struggles with the aboriginal people for ownership of the land.

This is a brilliantly written piece of historical fiction which I believe every Australian should read. I found this book to be a very interesting and engaging story as well as a very powerful read. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Jenny.
1,670 reviews57 followers
October 6, 2017
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 it. I love the way Kate Grenville portray her characters. Kate Grenville did a great job in describing the life of her two main characters in England and Australia that engaged the readers of The Secret River and to transported them back in time. I also like the way Kate Grenville describes the interaction of the people along the river and the Aboriginal People. However, I did cry reading The Secret River especially the part about the massacre of the Aboriginal Community.

Readers of The Secret River will learn about the life of people in London during the 18th century. Also, readers of The Secret River will learn about transportation to Australian and live of the convicts on arrival in Australia. Reading The Secret River, you will learn about the white settlement in Sydney and along the Hawkesbury River. The Secret River also highlights that you should value all your children and not wait until it too late.

I recommend this book!
Profile Image for Jülie ☼♄ .
489 reviews22 followers
May 17, 2016
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 the Indigenous people) through their ignorance of each others' cultures, were all victims of circumstances beyond their full comprehension, and that the 'real' villains had cast them all in such a very bad light. This led to the domino effect that was to become a cataclysm of everlasting effect.

Very confronting and thought provoking given that they are based on true accounts of our early settlers to Sydney and environs.
As a 5th generation Australian and Family Historian, I am always deeply and emotionally affected in ways I can't describe when reading of the many and varied struggles, challenges and confrontations of those early times ....I for one am truly Sorry that it was that way....I wish it could have been different.

I applaud Kate Grenville and others like her for finally getting these important stories about our history out into the open, warts and all. I look forward to seeing more of them come to life. My only hope is that a balanced perspective will always prevail, lest we unwittingly perpetuate a culture of blame and shame.

Recently I had the very great pleasure of seeing the stage play of Kate Grenville's "The Secret River" in a Sydney Theatre...Wonderful cast, wonderful production and hauntingly beautiful music...***** stars.
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,221 reviews2,051 followers
April 7, 2014
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 people. I had to skim over some of that. So not a bad book but not amongst the best I have read either.
Profile Image for Carolyn.
2,173 reviews615 followers
May 22, 2016
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 of the traditional owners in simple powerful language. The book is beautifully written and the characters strongly depicted. Destined to be a classic that all Australians must read.
Profile Image for Judith E.
546 reviews191 followers
October 25, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,285 reviews2,205 followers
April 16, 2014
I was moved and appalled and educated by this book .
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,893 reviews218 followers
January 25, 2022
This is a story of the beginnings of colonialism in Australia. It opens in 1803 in England, where protagonist William Thornhill is meets and marries Sal. Their lives take a downward turn, and he is convicted of theft. Usually the penalty is hanging, but instead, he and his family are transported to Australia to serve his sentence. Eventually he obtains an opportunity to start farming a piece of land. The main thrust of the storyline is how the settlers interact with the native people.

Sal wants to return to England, which she still considers home. William wants to own the land. The land, including two nearby rivers, is difficult terrain to cultivate and it becomes almost a character unto itself. The relationship between humans and land is a primary theme. A sense of foreboding is generated, as the reader can feel the escalating tensions, which will force a confrontation.

The protagonist comes across as someone who wants to do his best to get along with everyone. He is not an evil man, though I cannot say the same for some of his neighbors. Communication is an issue. The concept of land ownership is an issue. Racism is an issue. And the reader can probably guess where it is all headed. It is a book about how a person can end up acting against principles. There are sections that are difficult to read due to hatred and horrific violence. I think it is a fine piece of writing.
Profile Image for G.G..
Author 5 books114 followers
September 5, 2016
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 to love that wide pale light around him out on the river, the falling away of insignificant things in the face of the great radiance of the sky. He would rest on the oars at Hungerford Reach, where the tide could be relied on to sweep him around, and stare along the water at the way the light wrapped itself around every object. (p.34)
Here he is in 1806, transported to the colony of New South Wales “during the term of his Natural Life” (p.74), bewildered by the strangeness of the environment:
Instead of dropping their leaves [eucalyptus trees] cast off their bark so it dangled among the branches like dirty rags. In every direction that the eye travelled from the settlement all it could see were the immense bulges and distances of that grey-green forest. There was something about its tangle that seemed to make the eye blind, searching for pattern and finding none. It was exhausting to look at: different everywhere and yet everywhere the same. (p.91)
And here is Grenville’s description of how Thornhill perceived the Aboriginal people of Australia:
There were no signs that the blacks felt the place belonged to them. They had no fences that said, this is mine. No house that said, this is our home. There were no fields or flocks that said, we have put the labour of our hands into this place. (p.96)
The minute we read this we see his terrible error.

Once Thornhill is freed and moves with his family to a piece of land up the Hawkesbury River to grow corn and raise hogs, the stage is set for a confrontation that we know will be violent. At this point I found the tension unbearable and—so as to be able to sleep at night--had to put the book down and read something else (Robert Dessaix’s wonderful A Mother's Disgrace).

We all know that white settlers in Australia committed atrocities of all sorts as they wrested the land from its Aboriginal inhabitants; Grenville successfully uses fiction to show why that happened: how people who arrived with nothing were corrupted by the possibility the colony offered to have something.

Grenville’s novel offers much more than this, of course: I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Profile Image for RitaSkeeter.
693 reviews
September 3, 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 wildlife was unlike anything they could imagine, even the flora was different (as we see in Sal's yearning for green, deciduous trees). This was a rough start colony.

But another thing was different too. This was a land where anyone could make their fortune, regardless of how they arrived in the colony. It was an opportunity many grasped as they made new lives for themselves. There is a strong pride in Australia for our European roots and for our convict heritage.

Kate Grenville's book is concerned with this. Through convict Will Thornhill, his family, and other settlers, we see the differing attitudes of Euopeans to the Aboriginal people. From Thomas Blackwood who utters;
Ain't nothing in this world just for the taking... A man got to pay a fair price for taking... Matter of give a little, take a little. It's the only way.

To Smasher Sulliver whose view was;
Sterminate them... No one going to come straight out and say it but ain't it the only way?

Will's family provides a microcosm for how the Aboriginals were viewed. From Will, who is driven to succeed and then to protect what he sees as rightfully his, no matter the cost to the Aboriginals. To Sal, who is fearful, but attempts some interactions with those she comes across. To Dick, a child. Children will play with any child because they have not yet been taught that skin colour matters.

So the story moves toward the shocking, distressing, and inevitable ending. When I saw the mini-series I had to turn the TV off, so distressing were these scenes. The last 50 pages of this book are the same. Very difficult to read, and they a sense of shame for what our ancestors did.

Winners write the history. That's why January 26 is still celebrated and called Australia Day. Grenville gives the other side a voice in this book. She isn't didactic; in fact she shows very well the conditions European arrivals were confronted with and how the conditions supported the tensions between Aboriginals and Europeans.

The takeaway from this book is to consider the other side of our history. The side we don't like to talk about. The side we need to talk about. Our national shame.

I am sorry. We are sorry.
Profile Image for Brenda.
4,097 reviews2,664 followers
September 22, 2012
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 apprentice the year he turned fourteen, and he began learning to be a waterman... he loved the river, and was never afraid of hard work, and was looking forward to the end of the seven year apprenticeship, when he’d be a freeman of the River Thames. He would marry Sal and their future would be secure.

After their marriage, seven years later, they couldn’t have been happier. And when Sal presented him with their first child, William, or Willie as he was known, life took on a rosy hue. But suddenly, their world came crashing down around them, and William began thieving again, just to keep their heads above water.

When he was caught, thrown into The Old Bailey, and then sentenced to hang, it seemed there was no hope. But Sal wouldn’t give up……..

On a bitterly cold morning in September, 1806, William arrived in Sydney Cove aboard the Alexander, after almost a year at sea. He was ‘given’ to his wife, Sal, who was to be his master, as she was free, and he had to serve for the term of his natural life. Sal had had their second child on the voyage, named Richard, known as Dick, and he was a fretful child.

The journey of William Thornhill, his wife Sal and their children is a brilliant one. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the continuing history of their lives, first in Sydney, then on the Hawkesbury as a free man, with the Aboriginals already living on the river, the skirmishes with the ‘savages’, the language barrier, the beautiful but wildly untamed land … I would highly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t read it as yet!
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,433 reviews814 followers
July 5, 2014
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 been an afterthought . . . but too late.

That's what the English probably thought, since they considered the inhabitants as wildlife. They did not recognise a civilisation of any kind, and our PM, who is also the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, is several generations behind the eight-ball.

Grenville's portrayal of the cold, grubby, bleak life her characters led in London is enough to make you itchy with discomfort. The same is true of her clear description of the hard, hard Great South Land and the sparkling beauty of the River and the not-to-be-denied urge of William for his own piece of land, and then more and then more.

Really looking forward to reading the next one, as I see this is the first of a trilogy.
Profile Image for Teddy.
528 reviews65 followers
August 12, 2007
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.

The story then turns to the survival of the Thornhill family in a new world, with a harsh hot climate and struggles with it’s original inhabitants, the aboriginals.

Grenville writes in a quite meditative style until the Thornhills encounter the aboriginals. Then she breaks out as she shows the brutal price that must be paid by both the new inhabitants and aboriginals of New South Wales. The Secret River is a very satisfying read that will make you hungry to read more by Kate Grenville!
Profile Image for Emily.
243 reviews8 followers
September 30, 2021
Wow. I don't give one star reviews very often (usually I save them for books like 50 Shades). 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 that we aren't really meant to sympathise with the white settlers, so hating them is kind of the point. But a book either needs a good plot or good characters to keep people me entertained. And The Secret River had neither.

Profile Image for Cherie.
1,286 reviews113 followers
March 12, 2014
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 characters and action. What an eye-opening look at how the British penal system worked and transported prisoners and their families to Australia.

What I really wanted to know about were the conditions between the Aborigines and the white settlers and I wasn't disappointed.

The blacks - as the white farmers call them were mostly viewed as pests and no accounts. Nothing they did made any sense to the whites. They did not work, went around mostly naked and played and slept most of the time. They took things and ignored the white people who tried to talk to them. They came and went when they wanted and mostly refused any food that the whites tried to give them. In the end, sadly, they were massacred. They had gotten tired of the whites taking their women, indiscriminate killing and destroying their food sources. They tried to rebel against the settlers - always a bad thing...

I loved the relationship between Will and his wife Sal. It was a love story from the very beginning. He was not always a very nice person, but he was a much better man than some of the other characters in the story.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Profile Image for JudiAnne.
414 reviews55 followers
September 27, 2016
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 sentenced to hang but is spared at the last minute. He and his family are sent, by the English courts, to prison life in New South Wales, Australia. When his time is served he is released into the wilds of the land to make a life for himself, his wife and his small child. They do fairly well in the Sydney settlement, however, much to his wife’s dismay, William has bigger dreams. He wants to venture out and own his own piece of land up the Hawkesbury River. As he gets his farm started he faces a larger challenge. The natives of the land want to see him gone and they set out to make that happen!

This is an extremely emotional story based on the true history of the confrontations between the whites and the blacks during a time when both sides had to fight for the land. I really like Kate Grenville’s straight forward and descriptive way of telling this expressive slice of history. This is the first book in a series of three and I definitely plan to read the next two soon!
Profile Image for Daniel Shindler.
255 reviews74 followers
May 26, 2020
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 Australia, though, the results of the story are less satisfying. The novel depicts Thornhill’s slow mastery of his land. However, the central conflict in the latter part of the book between the native Aborigines and the English settlers does not go into sufficient emotional or narrative depth.I enjoyed the book but left feeling that something was missing.
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