Kate Grenville’s The Secret River

[WARNING: Some Plot Spoilers]

Mistah Kurtz – he alive.

The ghost of Conrad’s unforgettable protagonist broods over Kate Grenville’s graceful new novel, The Secret River, as surely as he did over that other river flowing deep in the heart of Africa. The parallels between the two books cannot be missed – Grenville’s novel may be set halfway across the world in New South Wales, but there are the same long journeys down a winding river fraught with nameless menace, the same scene where a native woman, proud and beautiful, steps from a European hut. More fundamentally, The Secret River shares a central theme with the Heart of Darkness – they are both explorations of the workings of the Western conscience in the context of the imperialist subjugation of foreign lands and people. And while Conrad’s is undoubtably the more metaphysical, and therefore the more powerful, take of the two – Grenville’s more sociological insights shed new literary light in these dark regions and make for an engrossing read.

The Secret River opens in London, in the last decade of the eighteenth century, where William Thornhill, its main protagonist, is living out his piss-poor childhood and adolescence. This is the London of the terminally destitute – a cold and wretched place that makes the world of Dickens look like the lap of luxury by comparison, and Grenville does a superb job of evoking the misery and the desperation of place and social class. Thornhill is one of the ‘lucky’ ones – taken on as an apprentice to a waterman, he has the relative luxury of having a proper trade to call his own – but the life of even a semi-skilled labourer in the London of this period is one of unmitigated penury and suffering, and as Grenville repeatedly informs us, it is simply not economically possible for a man like Thornhill to provide food, clothing and shelter for himself and his family on what an honest waterman would make. Necessity therefore turns Thornhill dishonest and, inevitably, he is caught stealing. Only theft is a capital offense in this period, and though Thornhill escapes the gallows, he is condemned to be deported to Australia for the rest of his natural life.

It is here, in the newly founded town of Sydney, that the second part of the novel finds Thornhill and his family. The next fifty pages show us the sights and sounds of this new land (in a way that recalled, for me, the writing of Grenville’s countryman, Peter Carey, in Oscar and Lucinda) as Thornhill carefully studies the opportunities that this new continent presents a man of his circumstance.

It is with the third part of the novel, however, that the action really gets underway. Having nosed about for a while (and having been pardoned and become a free man again), Thornhill decides that he wants to be a landowner – land is freely available to all settlers at this time, a man has only to establish himself on a piece of property and it is his, and Thornhill is quick to see in this largesse the possibility of establishing himself  in a better social strata than he has thus far occupied. His wife, Sal, still dreams of returning someday to England, but it is soon clear to Thornhill that such a move is neither possible nor desirable – moving back to England will only mean being thrust back into the debilitating cycle of poverty that brought them to ruin in the first place, and besides, no one shall accept an ex-convict back in England, whereas here the past is all bygones and Thornhill has the chance to make a fresh start.

Fed by the dream of an estate of his own, Thornhill thus sets up a farm on piece of land he fancies, and is thus brought into contact with the aboriginal people of the region who live off the land that he now proposes to fence off and farm. The rest of the novel is dedicated to the confrontation between these aboriginals and settlers like Thornhill. But as Grenville is quick to establish, this is more than a fight about land rights; it is a clash of civilisations, a conflict between two very different modes of existence, a battle between the ‘civilised’ settlers and the ‘savage’ hunter-gatherers.

As the novel plays out, Grenville explores the differences between these two ways of life in great detail. The central idea of the plot is that Thornhill, unlike many of his neighbours, is not a bigoted white man who believes that the best thing to do with the aboriginals is to kill them. While his neighbours participate in acts of barbaric sadism and brutality against the natives, treating them worse than animals, Thornhill recognises the essential humanity of the people he is dealing with, and struggles to try to achieve a kind of symbiotic balance with them, struggles to find a path between the empathy he feels for them and his need to overcome them in order to ensure his own and his family’s survival. And while Thornhill goes only so far in his appreciation of the aboriginals, never managing to transcend his vision of them as lesser beings, Grenville, viewing the natives through his eyes, does a superb job of showing us this alternate civilisation in all its glory. She is quick to stress the fundamental sustainability of the aboriginal’s way of life, the rich set of inherited skills that allowed these people to live rich, comfortable lives while remaining completely in tune with nature, their incredible heritage of myth and legend and song [1].

But even as The Secret River is a celebration of the aboriginal way of life (the book is dedicated to the aboriginal people of Australia) and, eventually, a stunning indictment of the inhumanity of the early settlers who killed and destroyed these people, it is also an exploration of the deeply human reasons that led at least some of the settlers to choose to participate in this carnage. Through the character of Thornhill, Grenville shows us how what is at work here is not (or not only) the cruelty of man to man, but a larger set of civilisational forces that have locked people from two different continents in a desperate struggle from survival, from which only one can walk away alive. The suffering that brings Thornhill and his family to set off on their pioneering quest for an estate of their own is undeniable, as is the heroism implicit in trying to eke out a living in the harsh and inhospitable wildneress. If Thornhill, for all his sympathy for the aboriginals, ultimately aids in their destruction, it is chiefly because he feels that he must destroy or be destroyed. The heart of darkness is fed by the warm blood of settlers fighting for their own lives. This is not justification or excuse for the destruction of the aboriginals – the cruelty of Western Imperialism is unexcusable – but it is a nuanced and insightful answer into the question of how the forefathers of the West could have been so inhuman.

The Secret River is also an exploration of the pathology of social class. Early in the novel, Thornhill, still a teenager, has:

“a sudden dizzying understanding of the way men were ranged on top of each other, all the way from the Thornhills at the bottom up to the King, or God, at the top, each man higher than one, lower than another” 

This heirarchy of power is constant presence in Thornhill’s world, and his struggle to climb up this human pyramid lies at the heart of much of his cruelty. After all, Grenville suggests, you cannot climb up in this heirarchy without pushing others down and stepping on them, and Thornhill, having seen the misery of the pyramid’s bottom, is heartless in his bid to escape it. When his new found prosperity allows him to hire a couple of newly deported convicts as labourers, for instance, Thornhill, only recently a deported convict himself, is quick to assume the manners of the gentry, treating these men with as little sympathy as he himself received at the hands of others when he was in their place. Thornhill’s conscious attempts to ape the ways of the very masters he despised are simply a bid for legitimacy of course, he is playing out the only role of ‘master’ that he knows or can conceive of. Thornhill’s inhumanity then, both to less fortunate Europeans and to aboriginals, comes not so much from an innate sadism, but from a failure of the imagination – lacking the strength to change the social order, Thornhill becomes its willing accessory. This process of sanskritisation, of induction into the landed classes (by the close of the book, Thornhill will have become one of the richest and most respected landowners in the region) comes with a guilty conscience and a general feeling of unease, but for the William Thornhills of the world, the satisfaction of having fulfilled the only ambitions they can safely imagine is sufficient to make these deeper qualms bearable.

The Secret River is thus a profound and moving book that asks and answers deep questions about the social and economic forces that drove the imperialist advance as well as the cost of the coming of the Europeans on the aboriginal way of life. Grenville’s prose is elegant and rewarding and does justice both to the majestic sweep of her novel and its historical tone, as well as to the nuanced polemic and subtle insights into human behaviour that Grenville brings to the table while attacking these grand themes. Comparisons to the Heart of Darkness, though unavoidable, are misleading – Conrad’s novellette is a concentration of poetic force, a searing and intense vision that takes on the dimensions of myth. Grenville’s novel, though an exquisite work of fiction, has a broader, more academic feel to it – it is a book that rewards deeper exploration of its central themes, and its tone is more epic than lyrical. This is a fine novel; and if it is not, perhaps, as dazzling as some of the other books on the Booker long list, it is because its themes are too serious, too fraught with gravity, too dark, to afford (or need) such fireworks.

[part of the Booker Mela 2006]

[1] A heritage most memorably explored in Bruce Chatwin’s incredible Songlines.