No Man’s Land Reading Project: The Secret River

[This is the 21st instalment in Ashley Thomson’s No Man’s Land Reading Project.]

I wonder how many nations’ readers are familiar with the sensation of picking up a work of literary fiction and recognising in it the voices of five or ten other popular writers from their country’s literary scene. Because it’s common in Australia. As soon as you start reading The Secret River, the voices and tone of Thomas Keneally, Thea Astley, Richard Flanagan, Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Emily Bitto, Patrick White, and even to a degree Helen Garner, come pouring out. And there’s nothing wrong with that – at its best, the effect of opening another book in that white Aussie lit-fic voice is like being greeted by the rustle and smell of gum trees by a swimming hole – but the overbearing familiarity of the Australian lit-fic voice doesn’t always work in a book’s favour. To those of us who’ve read widely of contemporary Australian literary fiction, it can have something of a backgrounding effect. The writing may be excellent, it may have uniquenesses and intricacies, but there is a mould to which it is conforming. Few things numb the mind like familiarity.

So The Secret River is familiar. It is also, however, unique to a degree that has informed its acclaim since the day it was published. That uniqueness is in its take on Australia’s colonial settler narrative. If you’re not familiar, the Australian colonial settler narrative is a pretty typical one – the connection of white male settlers to the land is romanticised via notions of intrepid exploration, the jolly swagman, and a kind of squinty-eyed, by-the-bootstraps hardiness. It wants desperately for nuance, and while many rightly argue that this means Indigenous Australians’ stories must be told and heard, it also means telling the plain truth of white settlers’ responsibility for the deliberate and almost total eradication of this nation’s native people. Where nations have done worse at confronting a history of racial genocide, Australia definitely hasn’t excelled, and that is without doubt at least partially why Kate Grenville felt compelled to write a book that masquerades as historical fiction whilst using thunderously obvious allegory to highlight Australia’s history of under-examined atrocities. I mean, even the title, The Secret River – subtle.

This could be problematic for so, so many reasons, but the biggest problem at the level of readability is that it has enormous potential to be preachy. Grenville clearly knew this. She has gone to great pains to ensure her allegory has a human touch, and she does this by calmly and completely colouring her protagonist William Thornhill, his wife Sally, and their burgeoning family. In Thornhill, a man rightly convicted of theft and barely saved from the gallows, Grenville spends half her novel building a man who, when it comes time to get allegorical, will stand up to examination. And you have to give credit where it’s due – Thornhill’s origin story, beginning in starvation and abject poverty in 18th century London, is a rich one that reads honestly and well – but it’s never less than bleeding obvious what Grenville is doing when Thornhill’s family, as part of a gaggle of white settlers who take up residence on the Hawkesbury River in the early 1800s, finally comes into contact with Indigenous Australians.

“He could feel the shape of the ground through his back. My own, he kept saying to himself. My place. Thornhill’s place. But the wind in the leaves up on the ridge was saying something else entirely.”

When the Thornhills settle on the Hawkesbury, the first thing they do is tear up a crop of yam daisies and plant corn in its place. The yams are, of course, a crop left by a tribe of Indigenous Australians (they’re not identified in the novel but the location and the time implies they are the Darug people), and immediately a misunderstanding is forged between Thornhill and the mob. He thinks they understand the spit of land is now his and will not bother him because they have everything else. They think he understands they expect to share that land with him as they have shared it with nature for longer than anyone has yet thought to remember. Tensions, in the silence of a simple failure to communicate, are born. And where each finds the other somewhat ridiculous, there is an insecurity and condescension among the whites, born of years of starvation, poverty and ruthless classism, that breeds a murderous, fearful kind of entitlement.

As the novel progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that there are “better” and “worse” people than William Thornhill. He is not an allegory for the good or bad in people – he is a characterisation of the triumph of evil requiring good people to do nothing. He turns his back time and time again – sometimes out of solidarity with white settlers, sometimes out of a patronising concern for his wife and family, sometimes and in most cases out of one form of cowardice or another. He then chases this up by talking to no one about the things he has turned his back on, and a tense, slowly ratcheting silence enters the story.

It’s impossible to spoil this novel – the Indigenous Australian population was reduced by almost 90% by 1900 – but it is so plainly not a novel about the facts. Grenville is seeking to form a relationship between Thornhill’s particular brand of inaction and silence, and inaction and silence generally; a head-in-the-sand mentality that still exists towards Australia’s colonial history, and the attitude of all entitled people towards those who would stake a claim to sharing the world. As pointed and correct as this is, and as much as it does get you thinking about the immense power of not talking about something, Grenville seeks to create this connection so obviously that it can also get a bit tiresome.

“His was white and theirs was black, but shining in the sun and glittering with river-water it was hard to tell the difference.”

I read The Secret River as part of a book club, and in the closing moments of that club, where responses ranged from outright dislike (because it’s another white settler narrative full of patronising images of Aboriginal Australians) to total delight (because finally here’s an Australian settler narrative that acknowledges settlers were three-dimensional in the worst sense of the term), someone asked who you’d recommend this book to, if you’d recommend it. It’s readable and evocative, excellently researched and educational, packed full of unpackable themes and images, and it doesn’t take much to get to the bottom of it. The answer that occurred to me is a Year 10 English class, which is another way of saying it has value, and also limits.

Image: cover

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