The Secret River, by Kate Grenville

The wind tells a different story
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The Independent Culture

Emigration is a trial of one's mettle at the best of times. For Kate Grenville's ancestor it was the worst of times. Exactly 200 years ago, William Thornhill, a London ferryman, was convicted of theft and sent to a penal colony in New South Wales. As a married man he was not assigned to a chain gang on arriving in Sydney but was given as a servant to Sal, his long-suffering wife and fellow transportee. Grenville's novel shows how, together with their growing band of children, the Thornhills set about making a new life in unpromising, often hostile, territory.

Sal longs for home while Will is glad to have escaped a world in which, despite doing his best to make an honest living by rowing the well-to-do up and down the Thames, he was losing the battles against hunger, cold and illiteracy. Wading barefoot through freezing water to save some ungrateful punters' shoes, he was struck by an insight: "The gentry seemed another species... and it came upon him as a surprise that they might be driven by the same impulses as any other animal." This spirited recognition of humanity represents the stoical heroism on which he will have to draw in the brave new world.

In Australia felons could, with a character reference from their owner, become landowners in a year. Will finds himself tilling the soil to the point where "he could feel the shape of the ground through his back". But in laying claims to Sydney's vast hinterland, the Thornhills, and a motley assortment of fellow settlers, ride roughshod over the rights of the nomadic aboriginals who appear and disappear without sound or apparent movement. The native inhabitants and nature itself seem to conspire against the Europeans. Though Will tells himself that this is his property, "the wind in the leaves up on the ridge was saying something else entirely".

To many gung-ho colonists, the aboriginals are nothing but an inferior enemy on whom to vent their frustrations. Of these power-crazy frontiersmen, the most vile is Smasher Sullivan, whose "greed for the admiration of other men was so naked" that Will "could almost find it in his heart to feel sorry for" him. In one stroke the author captures both Sullivan's emotional dependence and Will's compassion.

Will's relationship with Sal is frequently fortified by such psychological insights. Their mutual awareness gives the couple a convincing weight, as well as engaging the reader's sympathy and deepening the narrative tension. By this stage, what started as a sumptuous historical novel, with its brilliantly atmospheric depiction of Georgian London's Stygian gloom, has developed into a profound journey of self-discovery. As Will says to himself: "A man never knew what kind of stuff he was made of, until the situation arose to bring it out of him."