The Secret River
Kate Grenville’s seventh novel balances a family of dirt-poor white settlers between a river and the gray edge of 19th-century Australian wilderness, staking a claim on a stretch of land that the black aboriginal inhabitants have no intention of giving up. William Thornhill, a poor man from London sentenced to death and then to exile in New South Wales, buys a pardon after a few years of labor in Sydney. Unable to resist the opportunity to own property—a luxury he could never afford back in London—Thornhill cajoles his homesick wife and growing litter of children into carving out a homestead on the unfriendly river shoreline. The Secret River is a collection of images, most beautifully conjured and some flawed, strung together with an absorbing but less well-written plot line.
Grenville, who also writes instructional books for wannabe novelists, is able to summon truly arresting descriptions, the kind that stick up out of the page like splinters. Her imagery can be lyrical and memorable—the white gash of a split rock like a dribble of porridge down an old man’s chest—and most of her words are smoothly, carefully threaded together. But Grenville is hurting for a strong editorial hand, when her beautiful descriptions trail off into dull repetition or soggy cliché, or when she sabotages potentially lovely symbolism by bluntly spelling out the meaning. A red pen to prune the dead wood could have done the novel very well; as it is, the imagery is frequently dulled by the clutter.
Grenville’s creative power is obvious in her characters, intricately but solidly, sparely constructed, especially the only occasionally glimpsed neighbors; the sinister Smasher Sullivan, a neighbor and rabble-rouser, is a disgusting character in whom Grenville reveals some convincing sympathetic qualities. She resists the stock character of historical fiction, the noble savage, in favor of a much more complex relationship between the whites and blacks. But as with other historical fiction, the plot is sometimes so overstuffed with authentic detail that the human emotion rings false.
The plot surges forward years and then lazes around for days and weeks, which seems more to do with convenience than an intended narrative effect, as if Grenville would prefer to skip from one still, pretty image to another without bothering with the story line’s in-between movement. The novel’s climactic confrontation takes place 30 pages from the book’s end, and Thornhill’s reaction is confusingly depicted: drastic yet lightly sketched, as though Grenville left the repercussions vague because she wasn’t quite sure how to resolve them. The Secret River is entertaining and at times poetically startling, but the prose in between is undeveloped and underedited.