Keeping Secrets

January 11, 2007 at 1:58 am (Uncategorized)

I finished reading Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River last night. As a child, I loved the illicit thrill of sitting up reading well past my bedtime, the sound of the pages turning seemingly the only one in the whole of the dark night. As an adult, much of the thrill remains intact, but it’s a shocking habit that sees me bleary-eyed and a reluctant riser most mornings. Do you remember that fairytale about the hundred princesses who wore out their silk slippers each night, and no one could figure out how they were doing it? They’d creep out of the palace to some secret location, and there they would dance the entire night away with their handsome suitors, returning to the palace just before sunrise. Staying up all hours reading always makes me feel like one of those princesses.

When I woke up this morning, there was the usual small grieving for the finished book to be gotten through. When I enjoy a book, and I mostly do, I can’t help feeling a little bereft once the magic between us is over. I’ll never again be able to read it for the first time. I’ll always know, for all time, how it all ends. It’s a little death, getting to the end of a book. So I picked up Grenville’s book from beside the bed, turned it over, and read again all the glowing reviews and endorsements, holding the cover gently, affectionately, but also a little sadly. I didn’t quite know how to let go.

One of the things I loved about her book is that it is an Australian story in the historical fiction genre. I don’t read an awful lot of historical fiction. I’m a contemporary fiction girl, with a dutiful eye on the classics. I like reading about contemporaneous characters because I think we are living in crazy times. The ‘NOW’ is coated in a special kind of celluloid rather than sepia haze that makes every experience hyper- or beyond-real. I love that sensation generally, and I lap it up when an author wittingly cultivates that response in me. It’s all slightly perverse, and I love the perversities best of all. They’re often the most fun. So although I knew all about Grenville’s lauded, prize-winning novel, I hadn’t read it, and wasn’t even necessarily planning to until Llew gave me a copy for my birthday.

Well, I’m rather glad I did. It’s about a convict who is transported to Sydney in the early 1800s. He and his family end up on the Hawkesbury River trying to make a new life for themselves. I used to spend holidays on the Hawkesbury, so I could conjure the waterway and its hidden veins as I read, and I tried to imagine how that remoteness – and it is still remote – must have seemed to those first white settlers. They must have had the balls of lions to even make the trip in the first place.

The original inhabitants of the area did not fare well once they arrived, and Grenville very subtly makes much of her story about them. It is not a flattering portrait of the white settlers. They are not unsympathetically drawn, by any means, it’s just that I for one cringed at what we do know to be the total disregard at the time for the original inhabitants of the land. Aborigines were dismissed as savages, and when they tried to assert their ties to the land, they were killed. Some of them killed back, and that justified all sorts of organised efforts at extermination, as though they were nothing more than an inconvenient infestation.

It is an undeniable and ugly history, but what Grenville does so masterfully is make the reader see how impossible that pressure cooker situation was for all concerned, even those white settlers who did respect the tribes. It was always going to kick-off and end badly, one way or another, the second white men stepped ashore. Everything changed, and all bets were off. These two sides, black and white, original and arrived, were incapable of communicating effectively enough to understand and respect each other. And I don’t know that in that respect very much has changed.

All around me is whiteness. I was born and raised in Sydney, and I am attached to this place by something that dwells deep inside me. Something that is beyond words. And because I love this place, and feel a sense of belonging to it, it disturbs me greatly how little we’re taught about our Indigenous heritage. It disturbs me how much of it has been lost. And deliberately destroyed. It disturbs me how much our aggressive whiteness even today continues to spread through everything, still not satisfied, still insatiable, still lustful for the land. There’s no balance. And Grenville’s book is like watching something truly horrible in slow motion, because it was all the way back then that the balance was lost, and it’s never been recovered. Now I doubt very much it ever can be recovered. Aborigines were different to the colonizers, they lived differently, and that should have been their prerogative. But how to explain that? And how to hear it with a foreign ear?

I don’t have the answers I wish I had, but Grenville’s book makes me feel a little bit closer to something that has always been kept very far away, at a safe distance where we don’t have to see ourselves in our reflected past. So it was great to feel that, for once, I was invited to look as closely as I pleased.



  1. Sarah said,

    you’re the third person i know who’s given this one a great wrap. like you, i was going to give it a wide berth (‘historical’, ‘fiction’ and ‘australian’ – i don’t think so!) but that’s it – i’m sold. blog is fab, by the way. S x

  2. doctordi said,

    Thanks – and thanks for checking in. Yeah, I rated it highly. Thoroughly recommended reading. You can borrow my copy if you like.

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