The Secret River                     by Kate Grenville

The Secret River is a quick and easy read with a story that has more to it than meets the eye.

Find out what it was really like to be a petty thief in London and then be shipped to Australia.

Life was cruel. But with hopes and determination, can things turn out well?

The Plot

William Thornhill is exiled to Australia in 1806 on "The Alexander".  His crime? Petty theft!

He & his family leave behind a harsh, poverty stricken life on The Isle of Dogs in London

The Secret River describes life in Sydney Cove proves to be equally harsh as we follow the adventures of the Thornhill's & their growing family as they establish their home on the other side of the world.


The Themes in the Secret River are: courage, determination, passion, hopes & dreams, indigenous peoples etc.

Courage & Determination: Life on the Thames is tough but doesn't compare with sailing across the world & setting up home there, up the Paramatta River with all the dangers, poverty, harshness & hard labour. William realises his dreams through dogged determination & courage. 

Passion, Hopes, Dreams: These William has in abundance to the extent that he is blinded to the truth about the Aboriginees, that he & others have wrongfully taken their land. On one hand we admire him but on the other hand, we question what happens to these indigenous people because of Colonialism. The writer constantly makes her reader think about this & British Imperialism at that time. Yet we can also admire William's passion to fulfil his dreams.

The Aboriginees: It is easy to become wrapped up in William's story; we want him to succeed but his ferocious battle with the Aboriginees pulls us up short & makes us question British policy of the time in colonising Australia & how they went about it.


There are two key characters in the Secret River

William Thornhill.

He is the dominant character. He proves himself to be a man of great determination, courage & above all, passion, shown in his desire to own his own piece of land, "My own," "My place," "Mine".

But he is not without fault. This is best shown in his long struggle against the Aboriginees when some of his actions are questionable. Along with many Colonists, he never sees Australia as belonging to them, having lived there since time began.

Sal: she is his feisty wife & his right hand; she is a force to be reckoned with. Though for most of the story she longs to return home to London, because of her deep love for her husband, which lasts their lifetime, she stays put, helping him to achieve his dream. And of course, to their children, it is home. 

There are other characters who add to the story, but William & Sal dominate. It is their story.

Book Club Questions for The Secret River

1. The writer gives us very little information about the voyage to Australia. We can only guess at just how hard & hazardous it was. Does the story lose anything by this omission? 

2.  Which features of Kate Greville's writing did you enjoy most? You might consider her description, characterisation, the sense of adventure  or her picture of life on the Thames or in Sydney Cove at that time.

3.   Do you think William was irresponsible for exposing his wife & young family to such dangers in his deep desire to  own his own land? 

4.  Do you think there are any weaknesses in this novel? 

5.  Is it essential to include the whole section about life on the Thames in the story in order to enjoy it more?

6.  Having read & thought about the story, what are your feelings about the Aboriginees & their treatment? 


This was a well liked book by the group scoring 7.5/10.

Kate Neville is a very good writer who provides the reader with a thought provoking story  whilst her power of description permeates the entire novel.

She succeeds in evoking a feeling of guilt about Colonialism as well as leaving us amazed at the 

Thornhill's determination, passion & success in creating a new life in Australia. 
For those who have sailed up the Paramatta River, as this writer has done several times, the story will be more poignant though the surroundings will bear no resemblance to William & Sal' s time. This story is worth a place on any Book Club list.

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