Booker Book: Kate Grenville – The Secret River


  • Paperback: 334 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate U.S.; First Trade Paper Edition edition (April 10, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841959146
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841959146

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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