Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"The Secret River" by Kate Grenville

Started reading as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 23rd February 2016, although I kept putting it down as I got drawn in to various non-fiction books that piqued my interest over the last few months. I have also been studying part-time on top of my research job for the last 6 months, and training for my first half marathon so my free time available for personal reading has been quite limited.

"The Secret River" is written by Kate Grenville. I read another of her books "The Lieutenant" back in 2014, which was also set in Sydney during the early colonisation/invasian by the British. The writing style was similar in both, and Kate is great at bringing the Australian bush landscape to life. Having spent some of my childhood growing up in and around Pittwater in Sydney, a lot of her descriptions of the places and the scenery were really evocative. For example: "A blunt headland, the shape of a hammer, rose up to port. To starboard a lion of a rock reared up, baring its stone breast out to the sea and the unending winds." For someone who has sailed past Barrenjoey headland and into Pittwater, this description instantly pinpoints the location without needing to give any place names.

"The Secret River" tells the story of William Thornhill (convicted of being a thief) who is sent from London to the British Penal colony along with his wife, Sal, and first son. The family continues to grow, and a short time passes before Thornhill is able to apply for his Ticket of Leave. He and Sal work hard, realising that they have a second chance in life to make a go of it, although their end goals they are working towards are somewhat different. Sal dreams of making enough money that they can return to London and live a good life with their (now 5) children, while Thornhill has fallen in love with the idea of owning a bit of land in the Hawksbury, setting up his own little property, farming it and also transporting goods by boat between Sydney and the other small properties and settlements in the area. Eventually Thornhill persuades Sal to move with the kids to an 'uninhabited' stretch of bush land and to give it 5 years to make it work. They set to work building a little hut and sowing a crop of corn. Of course the area is not really uninhabited, the original people who lived in the area, the Darug people, still come and go, camping, hunting and gathering as they probably have for many generations. The rest of the book mainly describes the tensions and interactions between the local Aboriginal people and the new settlers, Thornhill and his family and also other rag-tag characters who have set up their own properties in the surrounding areas. This is where I stopped really enjoying the book, as unlike in "The Lieutenant" almost all of the attitudes and actions of many of the characters are upsetting and sometimes disturbing, probably made worse by the feeling that more than a little bit is based on facts and reflective of the general attitudes of the British settlers towards to Aboriginal people. There are a few good characters such as Blackwood, a reclusive settler who takes an Aboriginal wife, and Dick, one of Thornhill's sons who spends a lot of time playing and hanging out with one of the Aboriginal family groups, but mostly it's pretty awful.

A lot of the book made me cringe at the lack of empathy and understanding of the white settlers towards the Aboriginals, how they treated them so horrendously and brutally, and even occasionally when they thought they were interacting in a friendly way, were still so condescending and out of touch.This book is well written, and Kate really does have a knack for capturing human nature, but in this book a lot of what she captured was of the dark and disturbing way humans have of demonising and destroying other humans. It is a powerful book, and I feel like I should read more books about the Aboriginal people and culture that was thriving before the British settlers took over, and what happened in the years after settlement/invasion so I can try to understand better what was often left out of  or glossed over in the Australian history lessons of my childhood. I am quite incredulous that it is 2016 and the Australian Constitution still does not officially recognise the Australian and Torres Strait Islander people who were the original inhabitants of Australia for at least 40,000 years. If you would like to show your support to recognise the original inhabitants of Australia in our constitution, you can show support at the Recognise website.

Started reading: 23 February 2016
Finished: 24 July 2016
My score: 7/10
Genre: historical fiction

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