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
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food