Though I don’t know much about Australia, its origin seems an irresistible tale, one that begs novelistic retelling, either as a vast metaphor or as a historical panorama. In her new book The Secret River, Kate Grenville chooses the latter approach. The story deals with the colony of New South Wales, newly home to British convict William Thornhill and his family. The resulting novel is part Robinson Crusoe, part Swiss Family Robinson, with pinch of Heart of Darkness. The main thrust of the story is domestic, i.e., how will the Thornhills make a go of it in this new land? Added to this is the (to my untraveled eyes) completely novel historical and geographic setting with its pre-modern hardship and its spiky, lush plants, as well as its simmering colonial vs. aboriginal tension. It all leads to a potent mix for these criminals spared the noose and thrown upon a blasted Edenic heath to make their own fortune.
The novel begins with a brief prologue depicting the family’s very first night on the island. Recently rebirthed from the hold of the ship and reunited with his wife and two children, William Thornhill can’t sleep, leaves his bark-flap tent and encounters a threateningly calm native. Thornhill shouts at him impotently. Nothing happens, but the gears of the plot are in motion. We know that by the end of this book there will be a showdown, Western-style, between the convict colonizers and the natives.
The Thornhills do well, considering their circumstances. Thornhill gets a job rowing deliveries up the Hawkesbury River, transporting goods between the port at Sydney and the scattered settlers eking out a crop inland. His past as a waterman back in London (basically a combination of water taxi and UPS driver on the chilly Thames) serves him well here. The second section of the novel is a nice set piece, in the Dickensian mode, of a flea-bitten upbringing in late 1700s London, where Thornhill finds economic and romantic salvation apprenticing as a waterman for his future father-in-law. This set piece, more than any other section of the book, made me grateful for modern air-conditioning. Along with his hardship—the poor bloke’s parents just keep having children one after the other; it’s like some sick skit out of a Monty Python movie—we get Thornhill’s entre into the world of petty crime. The thieving—represented in the novel always without judgment, always a creation of economic necessity—gradually builds to a botched bid for some Brazilian timber, which eventually leads to his exile.
For the rest of the novel, Grenville moves to greener fictional pastures. Thornhill and his wife make a success of it down in the colony but before long Thornhill is hankering for his own piece of land, and this is where both the historical and moral significance of the story takes root. It’s also where the first flaws in Grenville’s narrative weaving show up. On his first trip upriver with his boss Blackwood, Thornhill sees an outcropping of land, seemingly uninhabited since time immemorial, shaped like a thumb, and he decides that it must be his. Here is the passage:
A chaos opened up inside him, a confusion of wanting. No one had ever spoken to him of how a man might fall in love with a piece of ground. No one had ever spoken of how there could be this teasing sparkle and dance of light among the trees, this calm clean space that invited feet to enter it. . . . It was a piercing hunger in his guts: to own it. To say mine, in a way he had never been able to say mine of anything at all. He had not known until this minute that it was something he wanted so much.
This is Thornhill’s great epiphany on which the rest of the novel rests, and it must be said that his desire for the land—though it sounds logical for someone who has never owned much more than an overcoat—remains unconvincing. This inchoate desire remains mostly uncharted and acts as a tugboat for the plot, pushing the family up the river, so that they eventually settle on the point and begin to farm it. This desire within Thornhill to own this chunk of land and to become a sort of reborn gentleman conflicts nicely with what his wife wants—namely, to return to London and take up where they’d left off before her parents died and their life turned into Oliver! This land, christened “Thornhill’s Point,” becomes the playing field for this spousal conflict and the larger conflict with the natives over whose land it really is.
But despite the thematic tightness of this plot and conflict, I never believe in Thornhill’s desire for the land. It is merely what he wants, given to us by the author. We take it as our daily fictional bread, and this absence of belief, at least on your reviewer’s part, points to a larger problem with the book, namely, that the characters remain unconvincing as characters with their own internal desires and fears and tics. They are in their own way vividly rendered, especially through their voices. The talk in the book sounds like a historically specific encyclopedia of British slang and slop. (The talk teems with fellers da, lad, baccy, damper, youse, bugger, victuals, bleeding, farthing, etc.) But their minds remain either blank or clichéd, and whether or not these clichés of thought are historically and/or linguistically accurate, they still drag their own dead weight with them. Consequently, the book ends up being this historically accurate novel with mannequins for characters. It ends up feeling like one of those historical dioramas you see in museums, the Neanderthal wife crouching over the fake fire, all of the details assiduously researched.
Despite this educative effect—and I grant that part of this might come from my own ignorance of Australian history—the book is in many ways enjoyable. As a read it fairly rips along, and though much in the novel isn’t successfully resolved—for instance, the wife’s all-encompassing desire to return to London fizzles a little too easily when the Thornhills make good—the main story of the novel does end with a confrontation between the natives and the colonizers. But even in this scene, in what turns into a paranoid massacre by the settlers and a few hyped-up townies (a sort of Blood Meridian lite), Thornhill doesn’t cogitate enough on it for my tastes. He begins the book an interesting blank but leaves it simply blank. Where Conrad gives you the heart of darkness, that shimmering pool located within every character, here you simply get a beige blankness; there is nothing to report.
Yet there isn’t enough narrative retention to call this Hemingway-esque; the narration doesn’t have that same caliber of repressed repetition and forced simplicity. At crucial moments, such as the decision to massacre the natives camping up near Blackwood’s, you get Thornhill’s thoughts, but one keeps wishing those thoughts were, in a way, bigger—”It was like a knot in old rope, he thought, hard as a fist. There was no point trying to tease it out: it was just a matter of getting hold of a good sharp knife. He glanced at the cliffs, a dense wall against the sky. There were times when he felt those cliffs were going to fall on him and blot him out.”
One interesting consequence of this blankness is that there isn’t any modern-day moralizing on the hubris of the settlers. Grenville simply depicts their situation and the actions it spawns. The only real moral center of the book—the only one who today we might call morally good—is Thornhill’s riverboat boss Blackwood, whose refrain through the book is, “Give a little, take a little, that’s the only way.”
This is an interesting motto for two reasons. First, it sounds cannily like an echo of the Beatles’ “The End”: “And in the end / the love you take / is equal to the love you make.”
Second, and more importantly, it’s interesting because Thornhill, for all his main-character likeability, doesn’t comprehend this concept. In fact, Thornhill basically becomes a passive bad guy by the end, an enabler for the extermination. He’s not as bad as some characters, like his upstream neighbor Smasher Sullivan, who’s pretty much a bug-eyed psycho from the first moment we meet him. Instead, Thornhill occupies a sort of mute middle ground between Blackwood and Smasher, aware of Blackwood’s motto (Blackwood has even begun a family with a native, much to the shock and awe of the local settlers) but firmly, unthinkingly holding onto “his” land. Perhaps I’m ignoring the more obvious political moral in my search for a convincing character. But instead of finding Thornhill a perceptive metaphor for willfully blind colonialism, I simply found him dense.
Of course the blankness of Thornhill and the rest of the characters could also be an aesthetic solution to a problem inherent in a historical novel. Namely, how do you represent a consciousness that’s distant from your own? And I don’t simply mean distant in years but conceptually distant. In 1806, there is no Freud; there is no Nietzsche; there are no selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. The very conception of an inner life is completely different. And so Grenville’s refusal to penetrate these foreign minds very deeply is in some ways aesthetically practical, perhaps even honorable. But that still doesn’t make them any more interesting as fictional characters. Because even though Grenville doesn’t penetrate her characters’ minds, she doesn’t offer a contemporary angle either, so the reader is left stranded in the middle. The novel—without any real mediating, fictive consciousness between the story and the reader—presents itself as a straight transcript of its time, but surely people in 1806 had thoughts, had serpentine self-justifications. Whether aesthetically brave or foolish, the reader is left sealed off, barred from the tumbling water of fictional consciousness she can hear but cannot access.
And this flatness, this edging toward melodrama, combined with a narrative tautness strummed along by showy one-sentence paragraphs, made me think this would make a hell of a movie. And this thought seems to be the mark of an ultimately poor novel, if by the end of reading it you wish it hadn’t been a novel in the first place, if you felt ambivalently that it didn’t need to be a novel, that the novel’s special talents for high fakery and historical vigor weren’t put to enough use.
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