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128 of 134 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting, Brilliant and Sad much more...
Kate Grenville's "The Secret River" is not simply another story of adventure and the pioneering spirit of young Australia (a genre which I seem to never tire of). I picked this one up on my last trip to Oz when a kind bookshop lady insisted I buy it and now am so grateful to her. Grenville has written a brave book about, ultimately, choices to be made and their...
Published on March 23, 2006 by Irene Romano

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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars slightly disappointed
The Secret River is the story starting with a boy, then the man who is less than some but better than most,and his family making it from terrible times in London to success in Australia. The book is very well written, makes it pretty clear what Australian life was like during the time of early colonization by transported prisoners, and also has some beautiful descriptions...
Published on October 27, 2010 by C. Gallardo


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128 of 134 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting, Brilliant and Sad much more..., March 23, 2006
This review is from: The Secret River (Hardcover)
Kate Grenville's "The Secret River" is not simply another story of adventure and the pioneering spirit of young Australia (a genre which I seem to never tire of). I picked this one up on my last trip to Oz when a kind bookshop lady insisted I buy it and now am so grateful to her. Grenville has written a brave book about, ultimately, choices to be made and their consequences.

Will Thornhill's life in late 1700's London is truly abysmal, although he eventually marries cheerful, clever, loving Sal. Grenville describes this period of London life very well (painfully so, but absolutely readably) and all that leads to Will being condemned to be hanged and then "pardoned" to life as a convict in Australia.

The hardships of pioneering in Australia, the hard work of those who want to get ahead, the in's and out's of how convicts could become emancipated, the drinking of those who are beyond help, the fear of the whites of the "blacks," the shock of the weather, climate, and so forth are all wonderfully written. Grenville is economical with her prose yet conveys so much. She manages to make us feel the harsh rains, the up's and down's of Will's and Sal's fortunes, all aspects of what needs to be conveyed, in other words, without going on and on. We never become bored, we never never feel anything is missing. I couldn't stop reading the book.

Furthermore, the marriage between Will and Sal was very well done. It could have been sappy in another writer's hands, but because Will and Sal had so much to overcome and because there was so much darkness in this novel, this strong marriage was needed as a technique, as well as being believeable and cheered by the reader. I loved Will and Sal together, and I loved Sal's courage and spunk.

It is, however, Grenville's courageous writing about not only the atrocities committed by the "blacks" (the term used in the novel) against the whites, but especially the whites against the blacks which haunts the reader... and for many reasons. I don't want to give away any endings but I think I can safely say that I kept wondering how much was artistic, how much was character/plot. How much is "white man's guilt" in what I saw (granted, as a first-generation American) was a bit too convenient, or glossed over, or weak or out of character or "let's get to the end"? (From what I understand, Grenville was researching her ancestry when she decided to start this book.)

I loved this novel though I truly was haunted by it, as the author probably intended. I can see why this book became a bestseller in Australia. In being such a courageous book with such a courageous look at the beginnings of this young country, it is also a provocative look at it's beginnings and issues which are, unfortunately, still ongoing, and as with all complex issues which have festered, have no easy answers.
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51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A surefire entry into the canon of Australian literature, May 6, 2007
This review is from: The Secret River (Paperback)
Kate Grenville sure knows how to write. She is an amazingly polished and masterful contemporary fiction writer and her craft is never more evidently in display than in "The Secret River". The story of William Thornbill and his wife Sal's journey half way across the world from London to New South Wales, Australia and their seemingly endless struggle against the elements to keep body and soul together is the classic story of the early settler in the colonies. In her devastatingly torrid narrative, the Thornbills never give up - Sal in particular is a gem of a woman. She makes William's heart (and ours too) burst with pride when we see her digging deep within herself to find inner strength to support her husband's courage and ambition inspite of her own deep reservations. When the Thornbills' determination pays off and they become landowners in their own right, they start to flirt with a certain forgetfulness and go on to embellish their own history to gain social respectability. But we readily forgive them for they deserve much and their sin is only human.

Grenville's depiction of the Thornbills' unrelenting fight to the death against the creeping menace of the aborigines as they close in on their abode is never more vividly or effectively imagined. Even more illuminating is the observation that while the Thornbills and other settlers do battle with nature each step of the way for their place in the sun, the natives manage to dominate with their eery stillness. What are we to conclude from this ? That unlike the white man who is an intruder and a disrupter of nature's quiet equilibirum, the aborigine is a component of nature and an integral part of the overarching landscape ? It is to Grenville's supreme credit that she avoids politicizing the issue, leaving the reader to consider and draw his own conclusions.

If there's one modern title I predict would eventually be accepted into the canon of Australian literature, it would be "The Secret River". It really is that good.
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51 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb book, June 22, 2006
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This review is from: The Secret River (Hardcover)
One of the books I read during my recent holiday was Kate Grenville's brilliant The Secret River. But it was upsetting, too, which is why I've put off commenting. I've a penchant for colonial literature and this is an entry in that category for sure. Yet, what sets it apart from, say, Conrad and others, is its working-class tone.

And, it does make brutally clever sense. The British essentially used convicted felons and their families to settle Australia, or, at lest, its rim. It's shock troops weren't soldiers but the transported working class who quite likely were even more tenacious and driven. That's the story Grenville tells in this utterly affecting novel. It's the sort of book that gives the reader pause, makes the reader sit back a bit to question -- what is happening here? This is a revisionist sort of colonialism that sets a new context ... but doesn't change the outcome. But, then, nothing could.

Superb novel, excellent reading from stem to stern. The writing is particularly fine, herewith a few bits:

"She was inclined to take it personally about the trees, wondering aloud that they did not know enough to be green, the way a tree should be, but a washed-out silvery grey so they always looked half dead. Nor were they a proper shape, oak shape or elm shape, but were tortured formless things, holding out sprays of leaves on the ends of bare spindly branches that gave no more protection from the sun than shifting veils of shadow. Instead of dropping their leaves they cast off their bark so it dangled among the branches like dirty rags. In every direction that the eye travelled from the settlement all it could see were the immense bulges and distances of that grey-green forest. There was something about its tangle that seemed to make the eye blind, searching for pattern and finding none. It was exhausting to look at: different everywhere and yet everywhere the same."

...

"For himself he bought a pair of boots, the first he had ever owned. When he put them on he understood why gentry looked different. Partly it was having money in the bank, but it was also your boots telling you how to walk."
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars slightly disappointed, October 27, 2010
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This review is from: The Secret River (Kindle Edition)
The Secret River is the story starting with a boy, then the man who is less than some but better than most,and his family making it from terrible times in London to success in Australia. The book is very well written, makes it pretty clear what Australian life was like during the time of early colonization by transported prisoners, and also has some beautiful descriptions of the land. HOWEVER, the progression of the story is so predictable, rags to riches, and even a bit plodding, that I give it merely 3 stars.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bleak, harsh, September 3, 2006
This review is from: The Secret River (Hardcover)
In 1806, William Thornhill, his wife Sal and their 5 year old son, set sail on a convict ship for the settlement at Sydney cove. William was initially sentenced to hang after being sentenced to hang when found guilty of theft, but was given a second chance as a "ticket of leave" man in the colonies, expected to farm the land at his own expense and to help to populate New South Wales. Life there is tough and it takes all of their efforts to scratch out a tiny plot of land to sow with corn to support themselves. Sal never loses her wish to return to England, "home", as it's nostalgically known by the Emancipists, another name for partially freed convicted felons. The tract of land where the family settles is home to a small group of Aborigines who resent the coming of the white man and sabotage his efforts at every turn, while the whites can't accept that these black men, who don't build, farm or make any apparent effort to improve their lives, can have any real claim to the land. This failure to accept each other's way of life, creates friction which leads to killings on both sides and the terrible state of non acceptance which continued for generations. It's a bleak book which recounts, in detail, the terrible harshness of the lives of the early Australian settlers and the differences in the outlook of the white and black communities which still exists today.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Totally Immersing, December 10, 2007
This review is from: The Secret River (Paperback)
Set in Australia in the early years of the nineteenth century, Kate Grenville's captivating novel, "The Secret River," tells the story of William Thornhill, an illiterate Thames River bargeman who is transported as a convict to New South Wales in 1806.

"Assigned" to his wife, who in effect becomes his master, Thornhill works hard to support his growing family and, like many of the convicts, is pardoned within a few years and settles on the banks of the Hawkesbury River to ply his trade as owner of a small "lighter" carrying goods and produce, trading with other settlers, and developing a piece of prime riverfront acreage.

In spite of his wife's longing to return to England one day, their fortunes increase and they come to love their strange corner of the world, but they are troubled by the haunting presence of the original occupants of the land, the Darug people, "the blacks." Some of Thornhill's neighbors, like Smasher Sullivan or Sagitty Birtles, regard the Darug as savages to be driven off, while others find ways to co-exist with them.

When the hostility between the Darug and the settlers escalates and a group of settlers decides to put a violent end to the problem, Thornhill must make a choice that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Based on her own ancestor's experiences, Grenville's descriptions of the territory and the frontier life immerse the reader in the day-to-day struggles of the characters until the reader feels that he too is enduring the hardships and wrestling with the compelling choices that William Thornhill and his family experience in that faraway place so long ago.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gripping novel that draws you in, April 3, 2007
This review is from: The Secret River (Hardcover)
I loved this book. I read it very quickly because it was so hard to put down. Kate Grenville writes beautifully and captures the magic of the Australian landscape.

The story is about William Thornhill who is sentenced to life as a convict in Australia in the early 19th century. The first part of the book concerns his life in Georgian England. He is born into abject poverty and although he tries to make an honest go of it, circumstances lead him into crime. He is convicted of theft and his sentence is to be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. His wife and child accompany him. This part of the book is a little slow, but the momentum picks up once they get to Australia, about 75 pages in.

In Australia, Thornhill discovers that the new country represents a blank slate where he can re-invent himself and break out of the cycle of poverty and crime that he has come from. He quickly wins his freedom and seizes the opportunity to get his own land and create his own farm, staking a claim to 100 seemingly vacant acres of land. However this brings him directly into contact (and potentially into conflict) with the native Aboriginal people.

The book is beautifully written. It really takes you into the world of early colonial Australia and gives you a sense of how difficult a life the early settlers had. The tension builds and builds as it become obvious that some kind of conflict between Thornhill's family and the Aborigines is inevitable. It made me understand the way that good people can be conflicted about what the right thing to do is. Different settlers in the area make different decisions and as you read the book, it you wonder how you would have acted in the same circumstances. But aside from the moral dilemmas, it's just a good story: a man trying to create a new and better life for himself and his family, overcoming many hurdles and setbacks, and gradually realizing that the biggest threat of all is right in front of him.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surely the Man Booker Prize Winner....?, August 28, 2006
This review is from: The Secret River (Hardcover)
Just put me out of my misery and hand Kate Grenville her Booker Prize now, please.

Though the other Longlisters I've read have been fantastic, some almost stratospherically so, I would call The Secret River approaching a masterpiece of contemporary fiction. This is the story of William Thornhill, a man transported to Australia for a crime he merely intended and never managed to carry out. His wife, Sal, and their children are transported with him, and it's a minor miracle he didn't wind up swinging from the end of a rope, instead.

Australia is presented as a forbidding, harsh place, but also a land of opportunity. Thornhill puts his nose to the grindstone, determined to see his way to buying a pardon, and then sets his sights on settling the wild land. They begin scratching out a farm in hostile land, constantly under threat from the very forbidding aborigines. Facing hardship, intense weather, sickness and constant setbacks, they hope to prevail and make their fortune. Sal hopes to return to England one day, and pins all her hopes on it. Her husband sees a very different reality, and hopes she can reconcile herself to the fact they'll never see their homeland again.

Kate Grenville is a brilliant writer. I'd say she reminds me of a modern day, Australian version of George Eliot. Her prose is dense and lush as well as lyrical, and her themes universal and humanistic. She presents the story without judgment, setting down the very brutal reality of the situation without presenting anyone as complete hero or villain. It's a very fair and balanced portrayal of the struggle between the white settlers and the black aboriginals, portrayed warts and all. No one is condemned, and no one given amnesty. There are no innocents here, but neither is there a single guilty party. All fare equally in Grenville's treatment, illustrating how incredibly powerful she truly is.

It's hard to see how any other book can be deserving of the Booker after having read The Secret River. It's a rare book that achieves the heights this one does, and if I find any of the others as deserving I'll be surprised.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Confronting and totally draws you in, February 4, 2007
By 
Lesley West (St James, Western Australia) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Secret River (Hardcover)
This is a superb book of the trials and tribulations that the early settlers faced when arriving in the newly "discovered" Australia. I won't revisit the plot and characters, as other reviewers have done this admirably, but will note that the story and the characters are entirely believable, and that the twists and turns that the plot takes could have their origins in a history book of early white settlement in Australia.

What makes this book so believable and therefore so confronting, is the dawning realisation of the main character Will that the "blacks" with whom he shares his land are indeed fellow human beings who have claims to the land, and who are inextricably linked with it the way he and his family will never be. However, it is fear for his family, whipped up by other far less sensitive souls along the river, which drives him to the horror that has so blighted early Australian history.

White Australians (and I am one of them) have over time found the history of their ancestors' dealings with the first people somewhat confronting and contraversial, and I imagine that this fine book will once again rekindle the debate relating to the occupation of a land that was home to thousands of people who were one with the land and regarded it as their mother.

That aside, it is a fine book, well written, with believable characters that the reader comes to care for. It leaves you wondering how people can live with themselves, as Will himself wonders in the last few chapters. It is a different book, apparently inspired by Ms Granville's research into her own family origins, but will resonate with anyone who lives in a country where they and their ancestors were not the original inhabitants.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Secret River, January 20, 2008
This review is from: The Secret River (Paperback)
I loved this book. Just the act of reading this book itself gave me so much pleasure- I would sometimes just go back over the same words and marvel at how well they fit together, how genius Grenville must be to write descriptive passages just so, in a way that created such vivid images.

The Secret River is above all about the ache, the passion, people feel for a place they call home. The desire a man feels to make something of himself, become bigger than he is, to make his mark on the world. And the inevitable conflict that comes with the culture clash.

It's hard, when approaching a book about historical racial conflict, to hit the right tone. Sometimes, the "historically accurate" tone of racism is so blatant and painful that it physically makes me ill. Sometimes, authors tiptoe around the issue so much that there isn't much impact made.

I think that Grenville hits the tone perfectly. Sometimes, just sometimes, even racist people feel guilty about their acts of violence and hate.

William Thornhill is one of those people- who turns, slowly but steadily, from one person into another, and doesn't realize it until it's too late and the damage is done. Kate Grenville presents him in an imperfect light, but a sympathetic one. He is a complex and fascinating character, and while there were many times in the book that I did not like him, I could not help but respect his tenacity, and I always, always looked for a reason to cheer for him.

This book is beautifully written, tackles a huge subject with an artist's touch, and leaves its mark. Highly, highly recommended.
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The Secret River
The Secret River by Kate Grenville (Paperback - April 10, 2007)
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