The Secret River

Written by Kate Grenville
Review by Janette King

The Secret River follows the life of William Thornhill, born into the working class of London in the late 1700s. Luckier than most, he apprentices seven years to his father-in-law, earning the right to call himself a Waterman (skilled boatman) of the Thames. But even mastery of a trade doesn’t guarantee a living wage. Like most of his contemporaries, Thornhill augments earnings by means of light-fingered pursuits. In 1806 he is caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Through the perseverance of his wife, the sentence is commuted to transportation to Australia. The couple could never have imagined the effect this untamed land would have on their lives. Once Thornhill is shown the secret areas of the Hawksbury River, he no longer wishes to return to Britain.

Kate Grenville’s understated prose doesn’t mute the power of her ironic commentary on the expectations of the British gentry on the poor, the transplantation of members of the working class unlucky enough to be caught in the act of survival, the conquest of an old people by interlopers in a new land. Powerful, thought-provoking and gritty, The Secret River is an astonishing portrait of the human nature of ownership in any age.