Book Review: The Secret River

Author: Kate Grenville

Publisher: Canongate, 2006

Genre: Historical Literature

Awards: Winner of The Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize

My Rating: A

I know only an outline of the history of Australia. But, for me, all history is best learned while looking at the lives of the people involved. Such was the case with The Secret River by Kate Grenville. Although the people in the novel are fictional, they are based on people and events that actually happened.

The author spent five years researching the subject. Her original plan had been to tell the story of her own family’s saga in Australia. But Kate Grenville switched to fiction because she thought it would be a more powerful way to tell the story. And powerful it is.

The story centers around William Thornhill and his wife Sal. William was born in London in the late 1700s. His early life was spent fighting for a scrap of food. Not until he went to work as a waterman on the Thames River did his life seem to have any hope. But life was always on the edge for this young man, and when it comes to making ethical choices he often chooses the wrong ones. When he’s caught in a theft, he is condemned to death.

Just before he’s scheduled to hang, the government gives William Thornhill a choice: he and his wife can be transported to Australia. The king of England has decided it’s a good idea to empty the prisons by sending all convicts to colonize what they believe is an empty continent.

Life for the convicts was incredibly tough. After nine months in the hold of a ship they were thrown onto the new land with nothing but the clothes on their backs. William was actually luckier than others because he had his wife Sal and two children on the ship (kept in a different area on the ship). They built tents out of tree bark and scrounged for everything.

William Thornhill’s break came when he got a job taking a boat up a river delivering supplies to settlers. And then he saw a piece of land, 100 acres, and the idea of being a landowner takes root inside him. Although Sal’s goal is to go back to England as soon as they have enough money to do so, William sees himself as a mighty landowner with people working for him.

There are loads of ethical situations in this story which, in my opinion, made it so enjoyable. William is not a squeaky clean character. He’s real and flawed. The biggest conflict was between the new conflict settlers and the Aboriginal natives. It’s very similar to the conflict in America between settlers and our natives. Violence alert: It’s very graphic.

My husband and I listened to this audiobook on our recent cross-country road-trip. The language and violence was quite graphic. It didn’t bother my husband. It did me, but not enough to sing high praise for this novel. I strongly recommend it.

About Margot

I'm also known as Joyfully Retired. I love to talk. I love to talk about books I've read, movies I've seen, places I've traveled to, people (especially my children and grandchildren), and Food. On the Quirky Girls Read blog I'm trying to read all the books that have won the major awards and then, of course, talk about them.
This entry was posted in Award Winners, Fiction, historical, Posts by Margot and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: The Secret River

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I do better with graphic books in print. Somehow it doesn’t bother me as much when I see it versus when I hear it.

  2. lemon123 says:

    Oh, I would like this one. I need to read a book that takes place in Australia. All I know is The Thornbirds. I didn’t read the book. Just saw the movie with Richard Chamberlain.

  3. “all history is best learned while looking at the lives of the people involved.”

    I couldn’t agree more! Have been curious about Grenville, and this book in particular, for some time. I just popped over to and saw than Simon Vance narrates. It’s on my wish list now! Thanks, Margot.

  4. kelley says:

    I agree with bermuda—I’d do better reading than listening.

  5. I love learning whenever I can and Australia is a country that intrigues me. I knew that they sent the “bad” people there and this story sounds interesting.

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