Kate Grenville takes the well-known history of Australia as a penal colony for the British in the eighteenth century and humanizes the past with a story about William Thornhill as he tries to create a new life in The Secret River. Capitalizing on the hard lives and harsh conditions of the displaced prisoners, as well as the treatment of the Aborigines, Grenville’s story has the stark realism of colonial hardship and the cruel misery of Wounded Knee.
After being convicted of robbery and condemned to death, William is granted leniency and his life sentence is to be served in Australia with his wife and boys. As hard as life has been in England, life in Australia at first seems poor compensation for being saved from hanging. But Thornhill rallies, works hard, has more babies, and eventually decides to move away from Sydney into the Outback to claim land and begin a better life farming and adding to his thriving riverboat business.
As he connects with others like him, prisoners sent to serve out a sentence, Thornhill stands out as a basically good man among thieves. Saggity and Smasher Sullivan, former convicts, are determined to get whatever they can from the land and its first people. Their attitudes are horrifying. Smasher keeps an Aboriginal woman chained as his sex slave and participates in the sale of Aboriginal body parts.
Thornhill’s mentor, Blackwood, another river man, helps him establish his new place and tries to advise him how to coexist with the Aborigines. The relationship between the Thornhills and the savages is built on fear, but Willam’s son, Dick, born in Australia, plays with their young children and learns from their elders.
The Aborigines, having learned to live off the land, now see it stolen from them. When they take Thornhill’s corn crop, the shaky truce escalates into a battle and eventually results in a massacre. As the book ends, however, with Thornhill ten years later looking back on the turning point resulting in his power over the land, his victory seems shallow, and his regrets destroy any real chance of his feeling content. After taking away the place the Aborigines still call home, as they silently roam the still undeveloped parts of the Outback, Thornhill realizes he now belongs nowhere; he inhabits someone else’s land, unable to return to his poor life in England and merely reconciled with his new life.
An informative story while at the same time providing a gripping commentary on the effects of colonialism, The Secret History deserved its place on the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize in 2006. Its message has been repeated in a television mini-series in 2015, and a 2013 play, recently revised by the Sydney theater Company in 2016.