CANONGATE £12.99 (334pp) £11.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Secret River, by Kate Grenville

Lands of beauty, lands of blood

This novel is a tale of two rivers - one lost, the other ambiguously claimed. It is also the story of a marriage. William Thornhill is born in poverty in London at the start of the 19th century. By good luck he is apprenticed to a Thames waterman, and marries his childhood sweetheart, Sal, daughter of his employer. A shift in the economy ruins his livelihood. Facing the rope for theft, he is spared and sent to Australia.

Impoverished in Sydney, Thornhill sets his heart on farming a small peninsula on the Hawkesbury River, a region scarcely touched by settlers. Thornhill's dream is both supremely simple and intractably complex: it involves having something that no one can take from him - not the law, not the gentry, not economic change. Ultimately, he is more anxious to feed his children than to be good (religious belief is silently absent from these settlers' lives).

Paradise is next year's harvest, or the modest imagined plenty of five years hence, or, for Sal, the day when the growing family will go "home" to London. Why not? This is a land no one has owned. In that notion of possession, with its accompaniments of change and "improvement", a catastrophe takes shape, for these are Aboriginal lands.

Kate Grenville writes this compressed epic of the unenfranchised with great authority at times and subtle pacing throughout, giving voice to the unheard, while letting their extraordinary courage speak for themselves. Her account of a long, loving though sorely tried marriage is impressively sustained. The encounters between the Thornhills and the Aborigines, and the resulting mixture of tolerance, resentment, incomprehension, fear and sheer frustration at the language barrier, are deftly handled. So is the slow-brewed, self-justifying bloodlust of some other white settlers.

It is a pity, though, that Grenville doesn't trust her art, or the reader's wits, enough to let the writing do its work without some moral nudging when the drama should come into its own. The range of settler attitudes, from the deranged racism of the murderer and rapist Smasher Sullivan to the tolerant co-habitation of the river-trader Blackwood, is too precisely engineered, though Sal's blend of pragmatism and decency is a more tactful element in the book. The eventual bloodbath is described in brutal slow-motion detail of a kind the cinema has exploited to the point of exhaustion. Grenville's eye carries it off, just about.

She renders the alien landscape with rich precision, and her writing about water and tides and boats is an enormous sensory pleasure. The combination of exultance and fear recalls Wordsworth's writing about the Lakes.

Thornhill is besotted with this new world. It speaks to him in a language he cannot master. When the battle is won and the facts suppressed, and when his absurdly grand villa is built over the rock carvings of vanquished Aborigines, he likes to examine the river and its forested cliffs through a telescope, as if he might be capable of understanding what he has in fact long since lost.

Sean O'Brien's selected poems, 'Cousin Coat', are published by Picador

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders