There is a kind of trilogy about early European settlement in Australia that Kate Grenville has written: The Secret River, The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill. But while Sarah Thornhill is a character in The Secret River, they are all stand alone books. The Secret River deals with the convicts sent to Australia once some kind of European set-up was in place (albeit very early days). The Lieutenant is about Lt Daniel Rooke, a sailor on the First Fleet who was sent as an astronomer, and who becomes friends with members of a local Aboriginal tribe. His key friendship is with a young girl who is as keen to learn his language as his is to learn hers.
Based loosely on the life of an actual sailor, it is mostly a compelling read. Rooke is a wuss of a character, though, and his self-awareness of his faults got a bit tedious after a while. Oddly enough, like The Secret River, I really enjoyed the first half or so, and then I found it a challenge to get to the end. I can’t explain why, I think it was me more than the book, because it is a really fabulous book.
William Thornhill is a Londoner living in poverty who almost drags himself and his wife and children into some kind of survival until he is sentenced to death for stealing wood. His sentence is converted to transportation to Australia and his wife and children join him. Once arrving in the new colony, he quickly works (for his wife in a strange and somewhat disorganised system) for his freedom and then dreams of starting life on a plot of land on the Hawkesbury River. All one needed to do was literally stake a claim – clear the land and start farming. After all, the land didn’t belong to anyone. They would just need to keep the pesky Aborigines off the land. With his wife and children, he starts to live his dream, battling his own doubts and his wife’s dream to return home to London, a dream he knows is long gone.
I found this a really odd book to read. It is wonderful, and I think extremely important and tells some of the ugly side of Australian history. I was extremely compelled at the start, drawn into the London life. Then it came to Australia, and it was fascinating to imagine the places I kind of know empty and wild. And then, this is where it got odd, I found I was struggling to pick it up and keep reading. I just lost interest, but was annoyed with myself for that; the story was still good, and I wanted to know what happened. And then it got to the really ugly scenes, and I was glad that I had persevered. I have heard that Searching for the Secret River, which Grenville wrote about her research and putting together the book, is an excellent read. Must get to it.