Secret River – Kate Grenville

28 November 2007
Not quite half-way through
The Blacks have just let Thornhill know of their displeasure at the disruption to their place – and it’s got some good ingredients. Not sure yet how well they all go together… and so far I’m not as convinced by the descriptions of New South Wales as I was by those of London in the early chapters. And I don’t think it’s only to do with the unfamiliarity of the place. It’s almost literally sketchy: a few short sentences serve to convey a continent of unimaginable newness and, personally I’m left with too much white space. (Cf heaven in Lovely Bones and Hades in Penelopiad.) Grenville describes hunger well, but not the insistent tactile physicality of the daily grind. Moments of unbearable heat, like the moments of unbearable cold in London, aren’t enough. Rose Tremain’s The Colour was better at that, and better at conveying landscape. And in that novel society didn’t just consist of assorted stereotypes representing the immutable strata of society simply dotted around the landscape. Hmmm. Seems I’m not convinced. But she’s good at getting inside Thornhill’s head: a decent, confused, hardworking man constantly having to face impossible challenges. Sal, on the other hand, never more than a foil in this narrative that is all Thornhill’s, is less convincing. She’s just too understanding, too forgiving.

So, anyway. Have I reached the real starting-point of the novel? Thornhill has dug over ‘his’ piece of land and in doing so has destroyed something left by the Blacks. The confrontation between him and the elder tribesman is the best bit so far: though told entirely from the white man’s point of view there’s the unwritten invitation to the reader to fill in the narrative’s mirror image. As they talk over each other and Thornhill, understandably tries to assert his authority, he tells the Black man he might as well be barking for all the sense he’s making. 200 years of history, of course, have taught us to cringe.

30 November
Not quite two-thirds of the way through
I’m not wholly convinced. There’s no doubting the veracity of it, and I just discovered (on Kate Grenville’s website) that Thornhill’s experiences are based on one of the author’s ancestors. I also discovered that the novel won a Community Relations prize in Australia and I wish I hadn’t. Now, it’s got Worthy running through it like words though Aussie rock, and I’m prejudiced. The Blacks – they haven’t been the savages for a long time, or any other non-PC nickname – are as Noble as they come.

1 December
A bit further on…
The Blacks are certainly idealised, as are their lives. So far, their Australia is an Eden and the only serpent is the white man. (Why does that remind me of Bambi? Obvious, I suppose: I can remember even as a kid being cynical that the only problem faced by Bambi’s family is – spit – Man.) The Blacks look on, with a mixture of studied indifference and a kind of uncomprehending amusement. We don’t need to hear the rather obvious subtext of it all, but Grenville puts it into words through what Thornhill says to the non-English-speaking Black: there are a lot more of us to come and you’ll not stop us taking over.

There are other strands, to do with those Whites who try to understand. Unlike Thornhill they see the Blacks as people, not a lower life form. Sal socialises and laughs with the women; their son Dick plays with them, naked; another settler has one as his wife. Even Thornhill’s scorn, in the bit I’ve just read, turns to admiration at the noblest one’s ability to make fire from two sticks. But it doesn’t make him feel any more sympathy when he tries the same trick himself and fails. The clunking message – there are too many of these for comfort – is… well, you know what it is. The Blacks became a subject race not because we were any better, any more civilised, but because we had more power. Well, you don’t say.

I’m not being fair. There are a certain number of ‘givens’ in a novel like this, and the gulf between early 19th and early 21st Century attitudes is one of them. What Grenville has to do is make a convincing narrative about white people who, give or take a couple of centuries, are like us: we can understand why they behave like that, even as we cringe. Bu..ut. It doesn’t stop me from finding some of the PC messages a bit too obvious. (I suppose that’s one of the dangers of writing historical fiction: it must be hard to get the balance right – and what seems to be laid on like a trowel by some readers might seem just right to others….)

There’s a long way to go yet. All these attempts at understanding will have to give way to something grittier soon. The character known as Smasher, something of an embarrassment to the other settlers and a reminder that not all the convicts were decent chaps, won’t be the only one to kill the Blacks when they start to get on his nerves.

2 December
The Whites prepare…
Well, it’s happening. It’s established that Smasher is a rapist and murderer, but Grenville moves it on: not all the settlers regard him as beyond the pale (which in fact he is, on his own bit of the river away from the others…). Some are completely opposed to his savagery, others find themselves agreeing, in principle. Then Grenville lets history neatly intervene: the Governor, under the command of the King, is on the side of the Smashers. We can tell Smasher’s part in the novel is nearly over: by the end of Part 5 one settler has broken his nose, Sal won’t let him through their door again – and the British army has made an attempt to do the dirty work of flushing out the ‘natives’. The soldiers are signally unsuccessful, so the powers that be raise the stakes: the very presence of the natives should be seen as a hostile act and the settlers are given a free rein to treat them as the enemy. And, as we knew we would be, we’re on English Passengers territory. The settlers aren’t happy about it, and the killing hasn’t started yet… but Thornhill, for one, isn’t giving up his claim, and we wonder how his instinctive humanity can save him now, even with the help of salt of the earth Sal.

3 December
To the end
It happened as, I suppose, it had to. The Blacks retaliated to a mass poisoning by killing the perpetrator. Thornhill is appalled by the obscenity of a spear protruding like a new appendage from the dying man’s belly, and tries to consign the memory to the same place as the one he has of a black boy dying of the poison. (Thornhill really is Everyman, experiencing it all.) The Blacks’ retaliation is no more obscene than the original crime, of course, and at one level Thornhill can see this: he doesn’t mean to get caught up in the hysteria, or the genocide in microcosm that it leads to…. But he does, because in Grenville’s scheme he must and the violence of it is arthouse graphic, 21st Century style. As, in Grenville’s scheme, it has to be. Thornhill doesn’t do the right thing and try to stop the killings, because this is a novel about how Australia was created. Instead, in a long epilogue, he prospers. But, because Grenville’s readers are sensitive souls and we still want to feel some vestige of humanity in the character we’ve lived with for so long, he never forgets what he and all the other Whites destroyed. The last few sentences, as Thornhill contemplates his huge estates, are about loss.

I enjoyed it, and wouldn’t have quarrelled with the judgment if it had got the Booker. But, well, it tries a bit too hard. Thornhill has to carry too much weight and, somehow, has to feel modern Australia’s guilt. Hmm. If she had to have an epilogue after the massacre she should have made it short – and let Thornhill bury his memories.

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