Friday, September 3, 2010

The Secret River - Kate Grenville

Book: The Secret River
Author: Kate Grenville
Narrated: Simon Vance
Form: Audiobook
Publisher: Blackstone Audio

A few months ago I downloaded an audio version of Kate Grenville's award winning novel The Secret River.  I'd heard of it because it was a Man Booker Prize nominee in 2006 and received quite a number of other awards

The story starts out in the 19th Century in London and follows the life of William Thornhill.  We see his progression as a bargeman, getting married to his true love Sal, his conviction of a petty theft, and his death sentence.  However, after some pleading and wheedling, Thornhill is sentenced to the small town of Sydney, Australia and he packs up his wife and kids and head out. 

The rest of the book is about his strive to get his family out of poverty, claim new land, start a business and farm, and deal with other settlers and aboriginal people.  The beginning of the novel states that the book is "dedicated to the Aboriginal people of Australia: past, present and future."  The most visual part of the book and the most heart-wrenching part is the interaction between the white settlers and the Aboriginal people. It's one thing to read it in history books and a completely different thing to read it in a novel.

This was an amazing story but my only complaint is that I listened to it instead of reading it.  It wasn't that the narrator did a bad job, on the contrary.  The problem is that this book is so full of beautiful description and little dialogue that it made it hard for me to listen to it.  I really wanted to read the passages, mark them down and remember them.  This is so hard to do as an audio book.

What struck me is how emotionally connected I became to the story.  Thornhill isn't a bad person and through the book I was rooting for him even when bad things happened.  Sal...I loved Sal.  What an interesting and strong character she was in the beginning and I really wanted her presence to continue throughout the story. The settlers all had their own personalities and it was odd to see the interaction of the convicts, settlers, and aboriginal people.  I could see the progression of convicts, many from poverty and abuse, finding the native peoples easy to abuse and use.  I could also understand their desire for land after coming from places like London where it was impossible to become a landowner.  Beware:  The is an event towards the end of the story that is heart-wrenching, horrifying, and if you are one to tear up while reading, this will make you do it. 

While researching this novel, I discovered the reason behind Kate Grenville's writing.  Originally, she wanted to write a non-fiction book on one of her ancestors who settled during this period and area.  However, she ended up writing a fictional account of a fictional person.  Doesn't this make you wonder what information she found on her ancestor?  Wow - as I was writing this I found her book Searching for the Secret River.  I am going to HAVE to read this.  I also want to read her Orange Prize winning book The Idea of Perfection.  Have any of you read any of her books?

Even though it was just written in 2005, I found quite a few different covers for the The Secret River:

Also Reviewed by:

Rhinoa's Ramblings
Book Lust
So Many Precious Books, So Little Time


  1. I haven't read any of her books but this might be one that I really need to get into -- I'm not the biggest fan of audio books because I tend to get distracted fairly easily, so this will definitely be a pick up the actual book and read it thing. I'd like to hear how the behind-the-scenes of this -- wonder if she'd do an e-interview or something!

    And can you believe there was once a time when petty theft brought you a sentence of death? I shudder to think of it.

  2. I have read other Grenville books. I have heard (on the radio) and read a number of reviews for Secret River and always meant to get a copy. Thanks for reminding me.

    Writing about your ancestors can be very fraught. I have so many interesting stories in my family that I would love to write, but I think writing some of them would make some of the older generation disown me. I guess I may write them someday, but probably not until my Dad's generation pass away.

  3. This is one of my favorite books of all time. I absolutely agree that the passages are beautifully written. It's probably too soon to try it in paper form, but I highly recommend the experience. I LOVED it and still do. I was disappointed The Lieutenant wasn't nearly up to standard, in my opinion.

  4. That's why I always read along in the book when I get an audio. It helps to see unfamiliar words pronounced too.

  5. Thanks on the audio vs. print version POV; I appreciate it. Sounds like a good one.