The Secret River. Kate Grenville. Edinburgh. Canongate Books, 2006.
I'd love to meet the chicano version of Kate Grenville's Australian foundation novel, The Secret River. Imagine there's an Australian writer working on a novel about his great- great- great- grandfather and grandmother, who see a family of anglos set up a homestead, extinct a food plant, dig a system of settlements up and down the river. Some of these anglos would torture slow-moving blacks, keep sex slaves, a few would intermarry or live and let live. Ni modo, the writer would think, that world ended the day those people set foot on our land and no amount of romantic recreation will change that one awful fact.
Grenville doesn't shy away from the contradiction between native and invader in 1807. It is the heart of the conflict in the anglo family's story. The husband, a boatman, convinces his wife to abandon the hardscrabble encampment of Sydney for virgin land, free for the taking. They're fresh from London, he released from prison and transported to New South Wales. They make a living in Sydney but the man discovers paradise in the wilderness.
A frightening boat ride on open seas--the novel's best writing happens here--gets the family to their land. Along the slow river that rises and falls with the ocean tide, a handful of people have staked claims. There's enough freight for a boatman and company for the woman during his absences. Poor mother and three kids. And the crop to nurture. Puro city folk--she's a literate spirit--the transition to subsistence farming must have been terrifying. Then the blacks would appear.
The story idealizes the aboriginal people in a clearly despairing manner. The men shake sticks at the farmer who has destroyed the native crops. The women trade precious artifacts for trinkets. For the anglos, dinner is a boring menu of mush with a little salt pork. For the locals, lizard, snake, and kangaroo diet puts food simply everywhere, and they make fire by rubbing sticks together. The anglo family's middle son seems drawn to black ways, but the novel doesn't go in his direction, the author lets the boy's career tantalize the reader with its possibilities.
The author gives the women a pass when the inevitable massacre comes, three years into their stay along the river. Grenville's graphic bloodbath is the exclusive doing of the most hateful along with the weakest men among the anglos. The blacks take a few anglo lives with them in the attack, but gruesome slaughter of man, woman, and baby eliminates what had so troubled the characters, missing crops and stolen tools. For the rest of their lives the man would never mention the slaughter and the wife would never question where they'd gone.
The sea passage early in the novel and the massacre of the innocents near the end make for the story's most powerful writing. In between, Grenville unfolds her tale with a deliberate pace that keeps a reader turning pages, shaking one's head.
Sydney and Australia today form a thriving English-speaking land near the rim of the world where it's already tomorrow. No looking back down under. But still. I'll stay on the lookout for a counterpart to Grenville's The Secret River. In the meantime, The Secret River is one of those novels you read and pass along to another reader, curious what they'll make of it.
That's Tuesday the first one in October, 2007. Looks like it'll be a fine Fall in southern Cal. Same to you.