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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

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