Australia Day commemorates the day in 1788 when the First Fleet landed in Sydney Cove with a cargo of convicts from Britain. The first recorded time that Europeans settled in Australia. Many Aboriginal people call it Invasion Day, and hold ceremonies that are more akin to mourning than celebration. But the vast majority of Australians celebrate in ways that involve light-hearted fun (sand modelling contests and a duck race were among the events I found on the official website) – trying not to think too hard about the original meaning of the day itself. The Penguin family headed out to watch the ferry race on Sydney Harbour, followed by a bit of fun in the pool. We also watched a skywriter write the word “sorry” in the sky, in the only reference I saw all day to the darker meaning of the day.
The Secret River is a book that explores one man’s experience, with his family, of the gradual colonisation and disposession of Australia by the British settlers. William Thornhill, a poor boatman from the slums of London, is transported with his wife and family to Sydney in 1806. Gradually, little by little, they start prospering in their one room hut on the hill above Sydney Cove:
He was proud of the fact that his boys had a blanket each. They did not have to lie awake, as he had done as a lad, waiting for the others to fall asleep.
William Thornhill becomes attached to this alien land of searing sunlight and jumbled rocks and scrubby woods. And after spending some time ferrying goods up and down the Hawkesbury River (the Secret River of the title) he sees a patch of land he could call his own.
A chaos opened up inside him, a confusing of wanting. No one had ever spoken to him of how a man might fall in love with a piece of ground. No one had ever spoken of how there could be this teasing sparkle and dance of light among the trees, this calm clean space that invited feet to enter it.
But when he and his family move there, this calm clean space already has occupants who have built their lives around the land. And Thornhill’s gradual changes as he thinks more and more of the land as his own, while the original occupants stake their claim in their own ways make up the most powerful parts of the book. It’s like a slow moving wreck. In the larger picture we know that eventually the Aboriginal people were “dispersed” all over the country with varying degrees of violence as the British settlers gradually staked their claims. But the small story of one family and the moral choices they made bring home the extent to which anyone who lives a western life style in this most ancient of continents is building on the blood of the first inhabitants of this land.
For me what drew me in was the characters. Grenville draws you into the characters and helps you understand how they have acted the way they did. Although they live in a very different world from the one I inhabit, a guided imagination can get you a long way to understanding them.
A year ago, I reviewed Inga Clendinnen’s essay on teaching history which (among other swipes) takes umbrage at Kate Grenville’s view that fiction can help you understand the past in ways that historians can’t,
“a novelist can stand up on a step-ladder and look down at this, outside the fray, and say there is another way to understand it. You can set two sides against each other and ask which side will win… or you can go up on the stepladder and look down and say, well, nobody is going to win…. Once you can actually get inside the experience, it’s no longer a matter of who’s going to win, it’s simply a matter of yes, now I understand both sides.”
In this book, Grenville succeeded magnificently. Her characters from the slums of Britain are fully realised, as they strive to better themselves in this land of opportunity, with varying degrees of realisation about what they are doing to get there.