One Saturday I happened into the library and stumbled upon a relatively new book by Kate Grenville with the title of Sarah Thornhill. I might not have given it a second glance--but truth is, I did, and doing so discovered that it was the prize-winning third volume of a trilogy. Never one to start at the end I went looking for the other two volumes and stumbled upon The Secret River. As is the way with a great many things from the library, it took me a while to get around to it, and then some time to get into it. And once again, I'm very glad I did.
The Secret River tells the story of William and Sarah Thornhill from the time that William was born to an impoverished family in the London Slums through the time of his transportation to Australia and on to his eventual success there. In the course of the story, he marries Sarah who goes with him to Australia and in the strange way that things transpired in that early colony becomes his overseer and master. They land in what was to become Sydney and begin their Australian careers--at first thinking only of eventually returning to London, and then gradually acclimating and falling in love with the country.
Thanks to an odd typographical choice, the use of italics for dialogue, one of the main features of this novel comes through with amazing clarity--silence. Seeming pages and pages go by without one word spoken from one character to another. One would think this would be disruptive or problematic, but it underlines one essential feature of the book--the sense of loneliness, exile, and then eventually awe at this new environment. We see a man and woman of few words become people of fewer words in a country that speaks all for itself.
from The Secret River
Through the glass, the trees were flaked and cracked. The rocks were what seemed alive, something old and solemn out of the sea, their grey skins speckled with white lichen, creased and furrowed and ridged. Through the eye of the glass, he became acquainted with each one. He could see how those tumbled at the base of the cliff must have once been part of its lip, where the forest ended as abruptly as the edge of a table. One by one each had snapped and racketed down.
He had never seen part of the cliff fall away, although he sometime held his breath, staring through the glass, to be watching at the moment it happened.
Through prose like this, and strong, flawed, likable people, we get a glimpse into the early history of the European colonization of a land already populated with a people of its own. It is this clash of peoples that makes for the climax and denouement of a supremely good and enriching read. I have no doubt that having read The Secret River, I shall also find myself reading The Lieutenant (book two) and Sarah Thornhill. All three books have garnered literary awards and, assuming they are as good as this first, they are undoubtedly merited. These books are worthy of your time and attention, and will repay such many, many times over.
Highest recommendation *****