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The Secret River Hardcover – April 21, 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 405 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Grenville's Australian bestseller, which won the Orange Prize, is an eye-opening tale of the settlement of New South Wales by a population of exiled British criminals. Research into her own ancestry informs Grenville's work, the chronicle of fictional husband, father and petty thief William Thornhill and his path from poverty to prison, then freedom. Crime is a way of life for Thornhill growing up in the slums of London at the turn of the 19th century—until he's caught stealing lumber. Luckily for him, a life sentence in the penal colony of New South Wales saves him from the gallows. With his wife, Sal, and a growing flock of children, Thornhill journeys to the colony and a convict's life of servitude. Gradually working his way through the system, Thornhill becomes a free man with his own claim to the savage land. But as he transforms himself into a trader on the river, Thornhill realizes that the British are not the first to make New South Wales their home. A delicate coexistence with the native population dissolves into violence, and here Grenville earns her praise, presenting the settler–aboriginal conflict with equanimity and understanding. Grenville's story illuminates a lesser-known part of history—at least to American readers—with sharp prose and a vivid frontier family. (May)
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From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–William Thornhill, a boatman in pre-Victorian London, escapes the harsh circumstances of his lower-class, hard-scrabble life and ends up a prosperous, albeit somehow unsatisfied, settler in Australia. After being caught stealing, he is sentenced to death; the sentence is commuted to transportation to Australia with his pregnant wife. Readers are filled with a sense of foreboding that turns out to be well founded. Life is difficult, but through hard work and initiative the Thornhills slowly get ahead. During his sentence, William has made his living hauling goods on the Hawkesbury River and thirsting after a piece of virgin soil that he regularly passes. Once he gains his freedom, his family moves onto the land, raises another rude hut, and plants corn. The small band of Aborigines camping nearby seems mildly threatening: William cannot communicate with them; they lead leisurely hunter/gatherer lives that contrast with his farming labor; and they appear and disappear eerily. They are also masterful spearmen, and Thornhill cannot even shoot a gun accurately. Other settlers on the river want to eliminate the Aborigines. The culture clash becomes violent, with the protagonist unwillingly drawn in. The characters are sympathetically and colorfully depicted, and the experiencing of circumstances beyond any single person's control is beautifully shown.–Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate U.S. (April 21, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841957976
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841957975
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (405 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #961,032 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Irene Romano on March 23, 2006
Format: 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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: 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 ?
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