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Secret River (Grenville) - Book Reviews

Book Reviews 
Magnificent.... an unflinching exploration of modern Australia’s origins.... Grenville’s psychological acuity, and the sheer gorgeousness of her descriptions of the territory being fought over, pulls us ever deeper into a time when one community’s opportunity spelled another’s doom.
The New Yorker


The most remarkable quality of Kate Grenville's new novel is the way it conveys the enormous tragedy of Australia's founding through the moral compromises of a single ordinary man. The Secret River reminds us that national history may be recorded as a succession of larger-than-life leaders and battles, but in fact a country arises from the accretion of personal dreams, private sacrifices and, often, hidden acts of cruelty.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


The stage is set for a confrontation that seems inevitable but never predestined. Grenville is too sly a writer for that. Imperceptibly heightening the suspense, she draws you into Thornhill's London past, then into his struggle to carve a homestead out of an astonishing land that warps reality, tilting perception toward hallucination.... Grenville's admirably plain novel is equally subtle in its portrait of what a man is and what—to his own horror—he can become.
Anna Mundow - Boston Globe


An Australian novelist of impeccable talents conjures this New South Wales as few writers could.... With sentences so astonishingly muscular and right that readers will dream the landscape at night, will flick an imaginary mosquito from their ears.... Unforgettable.... Grenville delivers Thornhill’s emotional journey as meticulously as she charts the sights and sounds of this bewildering New South Wales.... Perfectly rendered. The Secret River is a masterwork, a book that transcends historical fiction and becomes something deeply contemporary and pressing.... Nothing save for genius can explain the quality of this book, the extraordinary—one might even say alchemical—transformation of historical details into story, language into poetry. Against every measure with which a book might be judged, this one transcends. This one deserves every prize it has already received, and every prize yet to come.
Beth Kephart - Chicago Tribune


Orange Prize-winning Grenville's Australian bestseller is an eye-opening tale of the settlement of New South Wales by a population of exiled British criminals. Research into her own ancestry informs Grenville's work, the chronicle of fictional husband, father and petty thief William Thornhill and his path from poverty to prison, then freedom. Crime is a way of life for Thornhill growing up in the slums of London at the turn of the 19th century—until he's caught stealing lumber. Luckily for him, a life sentence in the penal colony of New South Wales saves him from the gallows. With his wife, Sal, and a growing flock of children, Thornhill journeys to the colony and a convict's life of servitude. Gradually working his way through the system, Thornhill becomes a free man with his own claim to the savage land. But as he transforms himself into a trader on the river, Thornhill realizes that the British are not the first to make New South Wales their home. A delicate coexistence with the native population dissolves into violence, and here Grenville earns her praise, presenting the settler-aboriginal conflict with equanimity and understanding. Grenville's story illuminates a lesser-known part of history—at least to American readers-with sharp prose and a vivid frontier family.
Publishers Weekly


In this follow-up to her Orange Prize-winning The Idea of Perfection, Australian writer Grenville turns to her own family history for inspiration. To depict the settling of her native land, Grenville focuses on William Thornhill, an illiterate bargeman driven to steal to survive hard times in London. When his death sentence is commuted to extradition to New South Wales (which would later become Australia), Thornhill and his growing family again find themselves struggling to make ends meet. When Thornhill tries to pull himself up in the world by laying claim to a plot of land along the Hawkesbury River, he finds himself at war with the native people. The narrative offers a fascinating look at the uneasy coexistence between the settlers and the aborigines, as well as at the internal pressures of a marriage where husband and wife nurture contradictory dreams. Thornhill and his wife, Sal, are interesting and complex characters, and the story builds in intensity toward an inevitable climax. Recommended. —Evelyn Beck, Piedmont Technical Coll., Greenwood, SC
Library Journal


(For Adult/High School) William Thornhill, a boatman in pre-Victorian London, escapes the harsh circumstances of his lower-class, hard-scrabble life and ends up a prosperous, albeit somehow unsatisfied, settler in Australia. After being caught stealing, he is sentenced to death; the sentence is commuted to transportation to Australia with his pregnant wife. Readers are filled with a sense of foreboding that turns out to be well founded. Life is difficult, but through hard work and initiative the Thornhills slowly get ahead. During his sentence, William has made his living hauling goods on the Hawkesbury River and thirsting after a piece of virgin soil that he regularly passes. Once he gains his freedom, his family moves onto the land, raises another rude hut, and plants corn. The small band of Aborigines camping nearby seems mildly threatening: William cannot communicate with them; they lead leisurely hunter/gatherer lives that contrast with his farming labor; and they appear and disappear eerily. They are also masterful spearmen, and Thornhill cannot even shoot a gun accurately. Other settlers on the river want to eliminate the Aborigines. The culture clash becomes violent, with the protagonist unwillingly drawn in. The characters are sympathetically and colorfully depicted, and the experiencing of circumstances beyond any single person's control is beautifully shown. —Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA
School Library Journal


A riveting narrative unfolds into a chilling allegory of the mechanics and the psychology of colonialism in the veteran Australian author's rich historical novel. In a follow-up to her Orange Prize-winning The Idea of Perfection (2002), Grenville reaches back to Australia's origins, in an expansive tale similar in plot and theme to Patrick White's 1976 masterpiece, A Fringe of Leaves. It's the story of William Thornhill, a London bargeman who turns to petty crime after an impoverished childhood and when marriage and paternity severely test his survival skills. Sentenced to death for theft (he stole a load of wood), he receives a commutation of his sentence thanks to the emotional importunings of his devoted wife Sal, and when he is "transported" to New South Wales as a convict laborer, William's family dutifully accompanies him. Australia beckons as a land of opportunity, though the hamlet of Sydney is at this time (1806) little more than a cluster of crude huts. William adapts to this strange new environment, following the examples of other convicts and fortune-hunters, and stakes out a parcel of land (shaped, with fine symbolic irony, like a man's thumb), grandly naming it Thornhill's Point. Then things begin unraveling. Native aborigines who already inhabit the land, and to whom the concept of ownership is utterly alien, are initially passive, then resentful, eventually confrontational. Misunderstandings crop up and multiply, and subsequent actions lead to a horrific massacre—in which William grimly, reluctantly participates. His "triumph" is plaintively contrasted to the stoical endurance of the aborigine Jack, the lone survivor of the massacre, who possesses a primal connection to the land and its spirit that William's act of "ownership" can never displace. No fingers are pointed: We understand only too well what brought these people together and then thrust them apart, and the story's resolution achieves genuine tragic grandeur. Grenville's best, and a giant leap forward.
Kirkus Reviews




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