31 May 2012
How do we choose what novels to read? I’m astounded how so many of my friends go about it. They wander into a bookshop or library, browse, pick up a book, read the blurb, look at the first few pages, and that’s it! Some are more organised. They read the reviews, think a book sounds interesting, and then they’re often disappointed. They had forgotten that many reviewers have debts to repay. “You review my book nicely, and I’ll do the same for you.” Sometimes reviewers are settling old scores, and if you believe a savage review you might miss a novel you could really enjoy.
So, why did I read Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River? It’s about a transported convict, sent to New South Wales in 1806. I read it because my great-great grandfather was also a transported convict, sent to Tasmania in 1841 for stealing a cheese, leaving behind his wife and children, amongst them my great grandfather. I know something of his history, he got his conditional discharge, and then he disappeared. So I turned to accounts of the early days of Australia, wanting to learn something of what my ancestor might have undergone. The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill, a poor boy born in the slums of London, without much hope, but who initially prospers because he befriends a girl of spirit, the only child of a waterman, a man raised a little above the common ruck, to whom he becomes apprenticed. A common story, the apprentice marries the master’s daughter, but the master dies, William and his wife are plunged into poverty. It takes very little, the Thames is frozen over, there is no work for watermen, and William is caught stealing some valuable timber to get the food to keep his family alive. He is fortunate: the sentence of death is commuted to transportation for life, and his wife is allowed to accompany him.
He makes his way in Australia. He has his dreams, and his wife, Sarah is the support that a man needs, except in one thing. He has a boat, trading into the Murray River, finds a wonderful piece of land, and settles there, much against his wife’s judgement, who wants to return to London.
The book also tells the story of the conflict with the aborigines, misunderstandings on both sides, their world views irreconcilable. The aborigines start to rebel against the encroachment of the white settlers, and Sarah understands that Australia belongs to the aborigines. “They were here first,” she tells him. Settlers are attacked, killed, their crops are destroyed, and the settlers fight back. In a horrendous scene, the settlers mount a punitive expedition in which William takes part, killing many men, women and children, and burn their bodies on a fire, where afterwards nothing ever grows. William returns to Sarah, tells her that the aborigines will not be troubling them in future, and Sarah understands, without being told, what that means. He repeats the assurance. “I heard you the first time,” she says. But they continue together, they need each other, they make their adjustments, as men and women did in those days. And William is successful. In time he has a house built of stone. He is like a local king. He has his disappointments. One of his sons has learned the aboriginal ways, and becomes estranged. William’s wife makes an English garden, poplars and roses, but they do not prosper. But the Murray River settlements prosper, and Sarah is renowned for her Christmas festivities. She no longer dreams of returning to London, or, if she does, she keeps it to herself. They will not take their children away from the land that they have learned to call their own.
The Lieutenant tells the story of another boy, Daniel Rooke, born in similar circumstances to a poor family, but with an extraordinary gift for mathematics. He discovers for himself the beauty of prime numbers, attracts the attention of his teacher, and then a local man, interested in mathematics and astronomy, who recognises the boys gifts. The boy is introduced to the Astronomer Royal, wants to work in astronomy, but there is no opportunity.
He becomes a lieutenant of Marines, and goes out to Australia on a convict ship, making every opportunity to take part in the navigation, earning the grudging respect of the naval officers, who look down on a mere lieutenant of Marines.
The best part of this book is, I think, Rooke’s struggles to understand the local aboriginal language. Anyone who has lived in a foreign country and tried to learn the language will know how the grammars and dictionaries are of limited help. Rooke didn’t have a dictionary and he recognised the fundamental difficulty of equating words between two languages whose speakers have a different world view. It’s the abstract nouns that are the most difficult, of course. And the whole business is complicated by the fact that the aborigines are learning English words and converting them to their own language.
One aspect of the novel that I wondered about was Grenville’s depiction of the relationship between Rooke and the aboriginal girl Tagaran, from whom he learns about aboriginal language and culture. Women married at puberty, typically at 12 or so, the age that Tagaran was said to be, the men usually older. Grenville depicts Rooke’s feelings for Tagaran as similar to his feelings for his sister Anne, but it’s not completely convincing. His sister Anne isn’t an innocent child, she’s a girl older than her years. The conversations with Captain Silk seem to suggest other feelings that Rooke doesn’t like to admit to himself. And Rooke himself says “in Silk’s mind there could be no intimacy with a native girl that was not physical. And how can I hope to persuade him otherwise, Rooke thought, when I myself do not understand and have no word for that intimacy.” I’m just not sure what Grenville is intending. She’s more explicit in her novel The Secret River, where her central character, William Thornhill, is much more honest with himself about his own attitude to young aboriginal women, although he does keep himself aloof. He’s lucky that his wife is with him, an archetypal good woman. Lieutenant Rooke is an ambivalent character: there are no hints of interest in women, unlike William Thornhill in The Secret River.
The novel gets a bit wooden from time to time when it seems to be simply recounting history. There’s a punitive expedition to a farming settlement to punish the aborigines for the murder of a settler, and it doesn’t flow, it doesn’t keep your attention.. I think this is because Grenville is recounting, quite closely, actual events, for which we have a record in Lieutenant Dawes diary, on which this is closely based.
Rooke refuses to countenance the punishment of the aborigines. He is fortunate, the governor could not court martial him, for obscure legal reasons, but his career in the Marines was over. He was sent back to England, lives out the rest of his life, and there are moving scenes when he lies in his hut in the Caribbean, approaching death, having done all he could to free slaves.