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The Secret River by Kate Grenville (thoughts)

March 8, 2012


I don’t read many Australian authors; this isn’t intentional, but rather that I just don’t seem to come across all of that many. So when Kim ran her Aussie Lit event back in January, I really wanted to participate. Checking out the lists, Kate Grenville immediately caught my eye, especially her historical trilogy that begins with The Secret River. Imagine my annoyance on discovering that my library had the second one, The Lieutenant, and not the first! Fortunately, a purchase suggestion rectified this oversight, and I was able to read The Secret River, if not quite in time for Aussie Lit month.

Let me tell you, this book was worth the wait. It’s so wonderful: from the first page, I was completely drawn in to the story and invested in Will and Sally Thornhill and their fate. At the same time, I was also invested in the fate of Australia’s aborigines; despite knowing the historical facts, I couldn’t help rooting for them. Grenville does a truly masterful job of acknowledging both sides of the settler experience, and her portrait of a good, decent man who nonetheless gets drawn deeper and deeper into racist acts is simply exquisite. The reader stays with Will through the whole book, and this limited third-person viewpoint fits the story perfectly. And Grenville is a master at deploying subtle tension; for about a hundred pages leading up to the climax, I was getting more and more nervous, almost dreading to turn the page. Such writing! Oh, and her settings are wonderful too: impoverished London newly-forming Sydney and the Australian bush all came to life in their turn. While never taking center stage, the powerful sense of place really grounded the novel. By the time I had finished it, I immediately put in a request at the library for The Lieutenant and a Netgalley request for the third, Sarah Thornhill. This is fiction at its best: powerful themes, vivid settings, characters that worm their way into your heart. I can completely understand why it was Booker shortlisted, although I also think it’s perhaps more readable than a stereotypical Booker novel.

To review: if your reading is also Aussie-deprived, or if you’re just looking for a story to get lost in, run and get yourself some Kate Grenville! Once I finish this trilogy, I definitely intend to explore the rest of her back list. Highly recommended.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough (Definitely not as ‘literary’ as The Secret River, but a wonderfully fun historical Australian epic.
  • Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (My favourite Australian book, and one that touched me powerfully. I can’t wait to read her newest novel!)
  • My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (An Australian classic that also focuses on life in the bush.)
  • Remembering Babylon by David Malouf (Another incredibly well-written historical Australian novel that tackles the relationship between white settlers & Aborigines. Malouf’s style isn’t as accessible as Grenville’s, though.)
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21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2012 7:02 am

    I really struggled with this book. I read it a couple of years ago and found it really slow going. But I am glad you loved it. I shall definitely read a couple of the other books you have mentioned.

  2. March 8, 2012 7:21 am

    I loved this book! I also enjoyed The Lieutenant and am looking forward to Sarah Thornhill. I listened to an author interview not long ago (can’t remember the source, sorry!), which really piqued my interest in Sarah!

  3. March 8, 2012 9:56 am

    I thought this one was excellent when I read it several years ago. I had no idea there was a sequel, so thanks for the tip-off. If you’re interested in Australia, Bill Bryson’s ‘Down Under’ is a superb read. An excellent book for the history of the country and travel experiences, all written in his inimitable style.

  4. March 8, 2012 10:27 am

    I am glad you enjoyed this. I own it, but still haven’t read it!

  5. March 8, 2012 2:37 pm

    I wasn’t aware the books form a trilogy! I’ve read The Lieutenant. It is a great read.

  6. March 8, 2012 2:46 pm

    I have never read any fiction from Australia (to my knowledge). That is the wonderful thing about challenges, they open us up to new authors and books. I’m so glad you found this one to be so engaging and now you have a small backlist you can pursue as well!

  7. March 8, 2012 3:57 pm

    Historical fiction tends to scare me a bit. (Yeah, I know, what doesn’t, right? :P ) I always worry that when I’m reading historical fiction about a place/time I know little about, that I’ll take away as facts things that aren’t. So I tell myself that I have to read all about the history of a time/place first. And yeah, with the amount of time I find for fun reading, I just don’t end up making the effort. And thus *very* little historical fiction gets read. Yes, I am the epitome of patheticness. :P

  8. March 8, 2012 5:00 pm

    I really liked this book. Though I’m Australian I feel like I don’t read enough Australian literature, but I would recommend this to anyone because I think it is beautifully written and deals so well with such a sensitive part of Australia’s history. It doesn’t shy away from the horrors but it is so human at the same time. You can understand the characters without excusing them, I guess. I didn’t love The Lieutenant quite so much, possibly just because I had such high expectation, but I am looking forward to reading Sarah Thornhill. I hope you enjoy the rest of the series!

  9. March 8, 2012 5:02 pm

    This is one I might get to this year – although I’m almost getting turned off women writers by the constant barrage of IWD tweets and posts ;)

  10. March 8, 2012 5:05 pm

    I am glad that you enjoyed this one. I like that Grenville has been able to achieve some degree of critical success with this book. Personally, I preferred The Lieutenant. I haven’t actually read Sarah Thornhill yet! Will get to it soon I am sure….maybe.

  11. March 8, 2012 6:48 pm

    I keep not reading Kate Grenville because I have her confused with Kate Morton in my head. It’s very silly because they are extremely different, insofar as Kate Morton is a slightly absurd writer and Kate Grenville sounds very unabsurd.

    • March 9, 2012 3:59 am

      That is not silly at all, because I did the *same* thing! In fact, I mentioned that in my library loot post! But now you know they’re not the same, so you can read this and be happy. ;)

  12. March 8, 2012 9:35 pm

    I was so excited to click over and see you post about this! I LOVE LOVE LOVE this book. It’s one of my all-time favorites, and I’m so glad you loved it, too. The language is just gorgeous, isn’t it? I rave about it all the time :)

    That said, The Lieutenant was supremely disappointing to me, so I am glad you started with The Secret River and not that one!

  13. ana permalink
    March 9, 2012 12:04 am

    Another Aussie vote for our Kate!! Secret River was excellent, The Lieutenant quite different but absorbing and am looking forward to Sarah Thornhill.

    From her earlier books, Lilian’s Story is very powerful and dark, while The Idea of Perfection was a delightful surprise, quite a change of pace, and really is one of my all time most memorable reads. I would recommend it without reservation. It is a charming and complex comedy of manners, most compassionate and wise.

  14. March 9, 2012 3:13 am

    I read an interview with Kate Grenville recently and immediately put The Secret River on my TBR list. Your review has made me want to read it even more.

  15. March 9, 2012 8:56 am

    I thought this one was remarkable as well. The way that she describes the land is so vivid that I felt it was a character, arguably the main character. I read it twice, but I didn’t go on in the series, although I have vague intentions of doing so, and your post makes me want to act on them! There is also a work of non-fiction that you might enjoy, about the process she went through in writing this novel; I’ve heard a couple of interviews about that and it really was quite fascinating!

  16. March 10, 2012 12:26 pm

    Something about this review made me put it on my wishlist immediately. Can’t wait to read it!

  17. March 11, 2012 9:38 am

    I didn’t realize that this book was part of a trilogy….I must go request it from the library as I had requested the 3rd book from Netgalley as well :) I’m excited to read it after reading your thoughts on it!

  18. March 11, 2012 7:41 pm

    I have just finished Sarah Thornhill and the review will be out middle of this week. I love it a lot and hope you do too.

  19. April 3, 2012 10:26 am

    my son and I are learning about Australia now, since he was born there and is interested. I’m very interested in this one. I haven’t read much Aussie lit…(any?)

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