London, 1806 – William Thornhill, happily wedded to his childhood sweetheart Sal, is a waterman on the River Thames. Life is tough but bearable until William makes a mistake, a bad mistake for which he and his family are made to pay dearly.
His sentence: to be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. Soon Thornhill, a man no better or worse than most, has to make the most difficult decision of his life . . .
The Secret River is the story of the Thornhill family who are forced to begin a new life in Australia after Will is sentenced to transportation for larceny. In London, Will had a fairly comfortable life as an apprentice to Sal’s father and it was icing on the cake when Sal agreed to marry him. However, Will and Sal lose everything they’ve worked so hard to get when Sal’s parents die with a mountain of debts. In order to feed his growing family, Will is forced to skim from the cargo he regularly transports on the Thames but spies are always watching and Will is eventually caught. Having initially been sentenced to hang, Will appeals successfully and finds himself on a transport ship to New South Wales.
After arriving in New South Wales, convicts are generally assigned to work for settlers, however since Sal was allowed to travel to Australia with her husband, Will is assigned to work for her and they start building a new life for themselves. After a time, convicts are allowed to apply for a Ticket of Leave which allows them to move about the colony with freedom until they are awarded with a full pardon and able to return to England.
While Will is determined to make the most of his time in Australia, the climate is unforgiving and the family soon find their prospects are just as limited. Once he receives his pardon, Will finds work with Tom Blackwood, an old acquaintance of his from back home who has been in Australia far longer, and Blackwood soon teaches Will how things work in the colony. Realising land is there for the taking, Will sets his heart on a piece of land he christens Thornhill Point and persuades Sal to eke it out for another five years. If they fail, they will return to England.
Will raises enough money to buy Blackwood’s boat and resumes his business of delivering goods to and from Sydney, however the Thornhills soon discover their land isn’t as deserted as it looks and is actually inhabited by indigenous people. The strange habits of the blacks, as the settlers call them, cause the Thornhills a great deal of distress as the tribes have no concept of property and habitually help themselves to the possessions of the settlers. The blacks stay mostly hidden from sight during the first few months, however they eventually move closer and the conflict escalates to the point of extreme violence which climaxes in a barbarous act.
The appalling treatment of the indigenous people makes The Secret River an uncomfortable read at times but it is also an important one. I haven’t read a lot of about the early history of Australia and my interest was raised lately after discovering evidence of transported convicts on my family tree. I wanted to find out more about what happened to the convicts once they landed in Australia and how they would have lived. As portrayed in the book, my particular convict was eventually pardoned, however it was a conditional pardon where he wasn’t allowed to leave the colony afterwards.
Much of the focus of the book is based on what happens when two cultures are suddenly forced to co-exist with no real understanding of each other’s ways and a pretty significant language barrier. While Blackwood tries to make Will understand the blacks have their own ways and it is easier to let them be, Will bristles when they help themselves to his crops and other possessions. It is quite ironic how upset Will gets considering he ended up in Australia for stealing another man’s property himself on a regular basis and was far more underhanded about it. There are a few tantalising moments when it seems like Will has come to the realisation the blacks aren’t really so different from him but it quickly fades in the need to protect what he has claimed as his own.
The pace of the book is fairly slow and I did struggle to keep my interest in the early stages as I got used to the writing style. There are a lot of descriptive passages but they are beautifully written and you really get a sense of the differences between life in London and Sydney. Everything in Australia is so alien for the Thornhills but Sal never really lets go of the hope they will return to the familiar streets of London one day and her memories begin to have unrealistic feeling of nostalgia as the bad stuff is forgotten.
The climax of the book, as the violence between the settlers and blacks boils over horrifically, is extremely disturbing but never gratuitous. It will leave you with a tremendous sense of guilt which is compounded by the snapshots of how the Thornhill finally began to prosper in the wake of the massacre. As the family grows in wealth and influence, Will can never quite escape his guilt but his attempts at reparation are feeble at best.