Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Worst Thing That We Can Do In Life is Forget About the Past: a Reflection on Kate Grenville's The Secret River





Even though originally I thought that my blog would include a lot of 'reviews' and 'reflections' of various stories and novels, it hasn't really happened that way, but here is a first... 

The Secret River by Kate Grenville tells the story of William Thornhill, a boatman who was caught stealing a load of wood and was subsequently deported, along with his wife Sal, to the New South Wales. Set at the turn of the 18th century, the novel provides a frank portrayal of life in the new colony and out in the frontier country.

Unlike other writers, such as Patrick White's Voss, Peter Carey's The True History of the Kelly Gang and the various poems and stories of Barbara Baynton, Joseph Furphy and Henry Lawson, that have tried to capture a particular 18th century life in the Australian bush, Grenville brings a certain dirtiness to the story. We are taken in on every part of the the lives of Thornhills. Although there is clearly a high point in the novel, the story is more about life. As readers, we feel for them, for the lives that they have been sentenced to, for the decisions that they make. I do not think that I have felt so emotional as a reader since reading George Elliot's Middlemarch. Although clearly a different book altogether, set in a different world, with vastly different characters, both novels take us on a inner journey.

I think that they irony of Thornhill's journey is that in investing so much thought and emotion into the characters and the lives we are lead back to our own lives - both personally and culturally. We are faced with the question, what would you have done? Could life have been any different? 

In the end, I think that the purpose of the novel is to remind us that there is always a 'secret river' hidden beneath the surface, the uncanny past waiting to unsettle us. As Grenville writes in the novel about Thornhill and his new abode, "His children's children would would walk around on the floorboards and never know what was beneath their feet." Although the past is the past, the worst thing that we can do is to forget about it.