The Secret River was very refreshing after the tortuously incomprehensible The Female Man. Set in the early 19th century, the novel tells the story of the colonisation of Australia by British convicts, current and former. Following the life of a Thames boatman, William Thornhill after his deportation to Australia, and his attempts to start a new live with his family in the face of threats from his contemporaries, his environment and it’s inhabitants, and indeed his own family.
One of the most notable themes throughout the latter half of the book (particularly in the climax) is the interaction between the colonisers and the aborigines, or more simply “civilised vs. uncivilised”, a theme that is played with a lot over the course of the book, as it becomes clear that despite their beliefs, many of the colonisers are far more savage and uncivilised than they perceive the aborigines to be. However, what I liked about the book is that as reprehnsible as Thornhill’s and the other settlers are, the way they’re treated by the other settlers is neither uniformly supported or condemned. As with Beloved, the morality is nuanced enough to give a more historically representation of things that we would today condemn outright. Again, it doesn’t make for easy reading (though moreso than Beloved), but the book is better for it.
As I was reading the book, I couldn’t avoid the nagging sensation that I had read something very similar before, particularly when reading about Thornhill’s obsession with owning his own property and making his own, self sufficient, life on this land. Eventually, after I’d finished the book, I realised that what I was reminded of was Halldór Laxness‘ Independent People, and most specifically it’s main character Bjartur. Bjartur has a very similar character arc to Thornhill, both experience absolute poverty and effective enslavement, Bjartur through debt bondage, Thornhill through incarceration and exile, and almost all of their acts and motivations are founded in these factors, to the point of alienating themselves from their families and their peers, and ultimately themselves in their quest for independence. However, there are two main contrasts between the two men, while Bjartur, whose only real crime is that he’s a bad parent ends up losing his independence and everything he worked for, Thornhill definitely loses all sympathy from the reader with his involvement the massacre in the climax and gets everything he ever wanted. Which is refreshing, if not entirely satisfying, as he gets little to no comeuppance for his actions.