Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 22, 2010

Searching for the Secret River, by Kate Grenville #BookReview

Kate Grenville is one of my favourite writers and I was bitterly disappointed when her novel The Secret River was passed over by the Miles Franklin judges. It was a brave and beautiful book, exploring the mutual incomprehension and inevitable conflict that occurred when early Australian settlers encountered the indigenous people. It was Grenville’s first venture into historical fiction, and coming as it did in the middle of the so-called History Wars, it was criticised for failing to be ‘true’ history. Searching for the Secret River was Grenville’s response to those critics.

Searching for the Secret River is the story of how her novel came to be written, starting with her mother’s family history story about Solomon Wiseman and Grenville’s epiphany on the Harbour Bridge Reconciliation Walk in May 2000. That walk, and her encounter with indigenous people watching, made her realise that her own pioneering family must have been one of those who took/took up land which belonged to indigenous owners – and so, despite her distaste for family history as a hobby, she began finding out more.

The book traces her initial research in the Mitchell Library, her fear that the crime for which Solomon Wiseman had been transported might be too heinous to bear, and her dismay in discovering just how hard it is to locate the ancestor in official records. A fortuitous trip to London gave her an opportunity for further research, but only deepened her confusion until a chance encounter in London led to discovery of his indenture records. Back in Australia again she was able to flesh out more about Wiseman but still knew tantalisingly little about him – and knew nothing at all about his attitude to the dispossession of the original owners of his land.

All of this is more or less the same story we have heard, sometimes interminably, from our family history besotted friends, albeit written in Grenville’s amusing self-deprecating style. The book becomes interesting when it begins to trace the transformation of ‘the facts’ into a book. It began as a work of non-fiction – and became a novel, but the process was full of angst, self-doubt, and anxiety about the author’s temerity in trying to depict the indigenous world view. To witness one of Australia’s well-established and successful writers struggling with the birth of a book in this way is extraordinary indeed.

I learned much from this book – but I wish I hadn’t read it. Sal and William Thornhill of The Secret River were fully-formed characters to me, and now I know that they are a composite of real people with real names and a real history, and even though I knew that all book characters are formed in this way, they are somehow diminished for me. It is, as Grenville realised when first she peered into the lists of convict records at the Mitchell Library, impossible to ‘not-know’:

I wasn’t sure that I wanted to find him. My hand on the creaking handle of the microfiche reader, the soft sounds of the library around me, I realised that my comfortable ignorance was about to be undone. If I found Wiseman’s trial, I could never tell my children that ‘for some offence we don’t know, he was transported to Sydney’….The trouble with knowing was that it wouldn’t end there. What did you do with what you know? You could hide it away again, but you’d know you’d done that. You couldn’t ever go back to not-knowing. (p20)

For would-be novelists this is a great book that traces the genesis of  story from research notes to finished product. But if you just want to read and enjoy the work of a great author, I’d leave it alone.

Author: Kate Grenville
Title: Searching for the Secret River
Publisher: Text Publishing 2006
ISBN: 9781921145391
Source: Personal copy, $32.99


Responses

  1. Do you? I loved the whole book … the historical research and the writing process. Like you I too loved The secret river, but if anything this book enhanced it for me. I loved understanding all the processes behind it…from its genesis in the bridge walk to that painful reframing as a novel. In that TAL site you posted, it, The secret river, is the top studied book in the Australian educational institutions they currently cover. I found that fascinating…I’m guessing it’s because it covers such wide ground from literary to cultural and historical.

  2. I’m pleased to hear that TSR is so widely studied – it’s such a very rich book with so many issues to explore.
    But this book, it seems a bit defensive to me (understandable maybe) and as I say, I didn’t really want to know all this.
    BTW today we were within cooee of Wiseman’s ferry I think – when we stopped for lunch at Brooklyn there were real estate ads for a property there!

  3. You were indeed within coo-ee (as the river goes, not so much as the road goes!) – it is a bit down river. I have done my only bit of water skiing at Wiseman’s Ferry…it’s a quieter, flatter stretch of the river.

    • I think a week or so exploring the Hawkesbury would be a very nice holiday indeed…

  4. Oh yes, btw, it is a bit defensive as you say but I did want to know it all, sticky beak that I am…

  5. Yes. it would be. In fact one of my most memorable family holidays was a houseboat holiday on the Hawkesbury for 5 days (maybe a week but I think just 5). It was gorgeous…and not without its adventure, like running aground because we misunderstood the flag cues. We put into Brooklyn for stores on that trip – using the little rowboat. Great fun.

  6. One day I might do one of those houseboat trips…

  7. Lisa, Ive just finished reading Searching and it really is a case of: Do you want to peer behind the veil of how an author creates, like understanding the inner workings of how a magician impresses you, or do you want to just enjoy the magic? I’m a bit like Sue, I need to know! :)

  8. I think I’m greedy, I want more magic from Kate Grenville and every minute she spends writing something that’s not a novel is a minute longer I have to wait for the next one. She’s got a new one coming out later this year – can’t wait!


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