Grove Press
Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.

The Secret River

by Kate Grenville

“Magnificent . . . an unflinching exploration of modern Australia’s origins. . . . Grenville’s psychological acuity, and the sheer gorgeousness of her descriptions of the territory being fought over, pulls us ever deeper into a time when one community’s opportunity spelled another’s doom.” —New Yorker

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date May 29, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-1-8419-5914-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00
  • Imprint Canongate U.S.
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date May 25, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-1-8419-5797-5
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $24.00

About The Book

The Orange Prize-winning author Kate Grenville reaches back into her family’s history to craft an astounding new novel about the pioneers of New South Wales. Already a best seller in Australia, The Secret River is the dramatic and potent story of Grenville’s ancestors, who wrested a new life from the alien terrain of Australia and its native people.

London, 1806. William Thornhill, an illiterate Thames bargeman and a man of quick temper but deep feelings, steals a load of wood and, as a part of his quick sentence, is deported to the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia. In this new world of convicts and charlatans, Aborigines and arrivistes, Thornhill tries to pull his family into a position of power and comfort. When he rounds a bend in the Hawkesbury River and sees a gentle slope of land, he thinks he has found a way to do so, and a determination to make the place his own takes over. But, as uninhabited as the island appears at first, Australia is full of native people, and they do not take kindly to Thornhill’s theft of their home. The Secret River is the tale of Thornhill’s deep love for his small corner of the new world, and his slow realization that if he wants to grow old there, he must ally himself with the most despicable of the white settlers, and to keep his family safe, he must permit terrifying cruelty to come to innocent people.

In The Secret River Kate Grenville vividly re-creates the fears, the aspirations, and the confusion inherent in settler life. This is a brilliantly written book, an historical epic, and an interrogation of the monstrous choices pioneers once made between honor and death, between their old way of life and a strange new one, between going back home and forging an existence in a new country.

Tags Literary


“Just like Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith before that, [The Secret River] is a powerful illumination of the history that has shaped [Australia].” —Vogue (Australia)

“A riveting narrative unfolds into a chilling allegory of the mechanics and the psychology of colonialism in the veteran Australian author’s rich historical novel. . . . Expansive . . . No fingers are pointed: We understand only too well what brought these people together and then thrust them apart, and the story’s resolution achieves genuine tragic grandeur. Grenville’s best, and a giant leap forward.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Magnificent . . . an unflinching exploration of modern Australia’s origins. . . . Grenville’s psychological acuity, and the sheer gorgeousness of her descriptions of the territory being fought over, pulls us ever deeper into a time when one community’s opportunity spelled another’s doom.” —New Yorker

“The most remarkable quality of Kate Grenville’s new novel is the way it conveys the enormous tragedy of Australia’s founding through the moral compromises of a single ordinary man. . . . A testament to her range . . . Harrowing and tremendously entertaining . . .Grenville’s powerful telling of this story is so moving, so exciting, that you’re barely aware of how heavy and profound its meaning is until you reach the end in a moment of stunned sadness.” —Ron Charles, Washington Post

“Absorbing . . . Americans will find Grenville’s eloquent pioneer story—pitting natives against European settlers—at once foreign and stunningly familiar. A.” —Entertainment Weekly (an EW Pick)

“Thoughtful . . . Grenville grapples with unanswerable questions while grounding her story in a specific patch of Australian earth, and the complicated peoples—Aborigine and European—laying claim to it.” —Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

“Unflinching.” —Ihsan Taylor, New York Times Book Review

“The stage is set for a confrontation that seems inevitable but never predestined. Grenville is too sly a writer for that. Imperceptibly heightening the suspense, she draws you into Thornhill’s London past, then into his struggle to carve a homestead out of an astonishing land that warps reality, tilting perception toward hallucination. . . . Grenville’s admirably plain novel is equally subtle in its portrait of what a man is and what—to his own horror—he can become.” —Anna Mundow, Boston Globe

“An Australian novelist of impeccable talents conjures this New South Wales as few writers could. . . . With sentences so astonishingly muscular and right that readers will dream the landscape at night, will flick an imaginary mosquito from their ears. . . . Unforgettable . . . Grenville delivers Thornhill’s emotional journey as meticulously as she charts the sights and sounds of this bewildering New South Wales. . . . Perfectly rendered. The Secret River is a masterwork, a book that transcends historical fiction and becomes something deeply contemporary and pressing. . . . Nothing save for genius can explain the quality of this book, the extraordinary—one might even say alchemical—transformation of historical details into story, language into poetry. Against every measure with which a book might be judged, this one transcends. This one deserves every prize it has already received, and every prize yet to come.” —Beth Kephart, Chicago Tribune

“Elegant . . . Graceful . . . Grenville is a fine, poetic writer who takes a lot of risks. . . . She is especially good at scripting Thornhill’s early interactions with the aborigines. . . . Moves on gusts of foreboding, not unlike a horror novel. It’s amazing how in spite of the lurking danger Thornhill wants to press on. . . . What’s remarkable about the novel . . . is . . . the way Grenville manages to make us understand Thornill’s state of mind. . . . Like a thriller . . . Powerful.” —John Freeman, Newsday

“A delicate coexistence with the native population dissolves into violence, and here Grenville earns her praise, presenting the settler—aboriginal conflict with equanimity and understanding. Grenville’s story illuminates a lesser-known part of history—at least to American readers—with sharp prose and a vivid frontier family.” —Publishers Weekly

“Offers a fascinating look at the uneasy coexistence between the settlers and the aborigines, as well as at the internal pressures of a marriage where husband and wife nurture contradictory dreams. Thornhill and his wife, Sal, are interesting and complex characters, and the story builds in intensity toward an inevitable climax.” —Evelyn Beck, Library Journal

“Grenville embodies in her characters the cruelties elicited by the clash of British and native Australian cultures and the savagery with which these differences played out. Plotting and characterization are so skillful that the book’s tragic climax seems inevitable. Grenville writes lyrically, especially in her description of the Australian landscape, while her gift for the telling phrase—one that conveys a paragraph of description in a few words—enlivens an essentially dark narrative. In addition to lovers of Grenville’s prose, this accomplished novel will appeal to fans of Thomas Keneally, Brooks Hansen, and Thomas Flanagan.” —Ellen Loughran, Booklist

“This novel is a perceptive and masterful portrayal of the lives of some of Australia’s earliest European settlers, and their gradual acclimation to the great strangeness of this new land and its orriginal people. The clash between the old and new worlds is elegantly conveyed, as is that between the native Australians and the settlers.” —Georgiana Blomberg, Magnolia’s Bookstore, Seattle, WA, Book Sense quote

“Grenville tells this cautionary tale with skill and considerable aplomb. The various settings, London as much as tiny Sydney and the rugged landscape of the Hawkesbury, are vividly evoked. . . . The minor characters are striking, memorable figures. But the distinction of this in some ways courageous novel resides in its central characters. Grenville has exercised the writer’s privilege of allowing the reader to penetrate the minds and souls of those we are inclined to condemn.” —The Sydney Morning Herald

“A powerful, compelling and poignant historical novel.” —Jenny Brown, Sunday Herald (UK)

“A wonderful novel . . . I couldn’t put it down.” —Reader (Australia)

“A formidable historical fiction, beautifully imagined and executed.” —The Age (Australia)

“A book everyone should read. It is evocative, gracefully written, terrible and confronting.” —Sunday Mail (Australia)

“The Secret River tells the story of a convict. . . . Many writers had been there before Kate Grenville. And yet, when William Thornhill steps ashore in 1806, it’s as if no one has described the scene before him. Such is the power of Grenville’s imagination that everything seems newly minted.” —Bulletin (Australia)

“Grenville [writes] with such inventive energy, descriptive verve and genuine love of revitalizing history that you’ll bite the hand that tries to haul you away from this book. The Secret River is fabulous historical fiction, a rich and challenging reimagining of familiar territory . . . a riveting, dramatic exercise.” —The Australian

“Keats would have relished The Secret River, the story of a very different Englishman, an illiterate bargeman caught stealing who was shipped out in 1806 to what became Australia. Kate Grenville writes a powerful, poetic work.” —Karen R. Long, The Plain Dealer


Winner Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2006
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Selected as an ALA Notable Book of the Year 2006
A Washington Post Book World Most Favorable Reviews Title (2006)
A Book Sense Selection


The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Now it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales. There was hardly a door, barely a wall: only a flap of bark, a screen of sticks and mud. There was no need of lock, of door, of wall: this was a prison whose bars were ten thousand miles of water.

Thornhill’s wife was sleeping sweet and peaceful against him, her hand still entwined in his. The child and the baby were asleep too, curled up together. Only Thornhill could not bring himself to close his eyes on this foreign darkness. Through the doorway of the hut he could feel the night, huge and damp, flowing in and bringing with it the sounds of its own life: tickings and creakings, small private rustlings, and beyond that the soughing of the forest, mile after mile.

When he got up and stepped out through the doorway there was no cry, no guard: only the living night. The air moved around him, full of rich dank smells. Trees stood tall over him. A breeze shivered through the leaves, then died, and left only the vast fact of the forest.

He was nothing more than a flea on the side of some enor­mous quiet creature.

Down the hill the settlement was hidden by the darkness. A dog barked in a tired way and stopped. From the bay where the Alexander was anchored there was a sense of restless water shifting in its bed of land and swelling up against the shore.

Above him in the sky was a thin moon and a scatter of stars as meaningless as spilt rice. There was no Pole Star, a friend to guide him on the Thames, no Bear that he had known all his life: only this blaze, unreadable, indifferent.

All the many months in the Alexander, lying in the hammock which was all the territory he could claim in the world, listening to the sea slap against the side of the ship and trying to hear the voices of his own wife, his own children, in the noise from the women’s quarters, he had been comforted by telling over the bends of his own Thames. The Isle of Dogs, the deep eddying pool of Rotherhithe, the sudden twist of the sky as the river swung around the corner to Lambeth: they were all as intimate to him as breathing. Daniel Ellison grunted in his hammock beside him, fighting even in his sleep, the women were silent beyond their bulkhead, and still in the eye of his mind he rounded bend after bend of that river.

Now, standing in the great sighing lung of this other place and feeling the dirt chill under his feet, he knew that life was gone. He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him. This was a place, like death, from which men did not return. It was a sharp stab like a splinter under a nail: the pain of loss. He would die here under these alien stars, his bones rot in this cold earth.

He had not cried, not for thirty years, not since he was a hungry child too young to know that crying did not fill your belly.

But now his throat was thickening, a press of despair behind his eyes forcing warm tears down his cheeks.

There were things worse than dying: life had taught him that. Being here in New South Wales might be one of them.

It seemed at first to be the tears welling, the way the darkness moved in front of him. It took a moment to understand that the stirring was a human, as black as the air itself. His skin swallowed the light and made him not quite real, something only imagined. His eyes were set so deeply into the skull that they were invisible, each in its cave of bone. The rock of his face shaped itself around the big mouth, the imposing nose, the folds of his cheeks. Without surprise, as though he were dreaming, Thornhill saw the scars drawn on the man’s chest, each a neat line raised and twisted, living against the skin.

He took a step towards Thornhill so that the parched starlight from the sky fell on his shoulders. He wore his nakedness like a cloak. Upright in his hand, the spear was part of him, an exten­sion of his arm.

Clothed as he was, Thornhill felt skinless as a maggot. The spear was tall and serious. To have evaded death at the end of the rope, only to go like this, his skin punctured and blood spilled beneath these chilly stars! And behind him, hardly hidden by that flap of bark, were those soft parcels of flesh: his wife and children.

Anger, that old familiar friend, came to his side. Damn your eyes be off, he shouted. Go to the devil! After so long as a felon, hunched under the threat of the lash, he felt himself expanding back into his full size. His voice was rough, full of power, his anger a solid warmth inside him.

He took a threatening step forward. Could make out chips of sharp stone in the end of the spear. It would not go through a man neat as a needle. It would rip its way in. Pulling it out would rip all over again. The thought fanned his rage. Be off! Empty though it was, he raised his hand against the man.

The mouth of the black man began to move itself around sounds. As he spoke he gestured with the spear so it came and went in the darkness. They were close enough to touch.

In the fluid rush of speech Thornhill suddenly heard words. Be off, the man was shouting. Be off! It was his own tone exactly.

This was a kind of madness, as if a dog were to bark in English.

Be off, be off! He was close enough now that he could see the man’s eyes catching the light under their heavy brows, and the straight angry line of his mouth. His own words had all dried up, but he stood his ground.

He had died once, in a manner of speaking. He could die again. He had been stripped of everything already: he had only the dirt under his bare feet, his small grip on this unknown place. He had nothing but that, and those helpless sleeping humans in the hut behind him. He was not about to surrender them to any naked black man.

In the silence between them the breeze rattled through the leaves. He glanced back at where his wife and infants lay, and when he looked again the man was gone. The darkness in front of him whispered and shifted, but there was only the forest. It could hide a hundred black men with spears, a thousand, a whole conti­nent full of men with spears and that grim line to their mouths.

He went quickly into the hut, stumbling against the doorway so that clods of daubed mud fell away from the wall. The hut offered no safety, just the idea of it, but he dragged the flap of bark into place. He stretched himself out on the dirt alongside his family, forcing himself to lie still. But every muscle was tensed, anticipating the shock in his neck or his belly, his hand going to the place, the cold moment of finding that unforgiving thing in his flesh.

Reading Group Guide

1. In the prologue, “Strangers,” we are introduced to William Thornhill, who has been transported to New South Wales as a criminal. “There was no need of lock, of door, of wall: this was a prison whose bars were ten thousand miles of water” (p. 3). Considering William’s confrontation on the first night, is the sentence ironic? In these few pages how is the alien landscape and his visceral reaction to it established? Why do you think that Grenville chose to begin the book with this out-of-sequence chapter?

2. Part 1 of the novel puts us back at Thornhill’s desperately impoverished childhood in a large family in London at the early part of the nineteenth-century. “He grew up a fighter. By the time he was ten years old the other boys knew to leave him alone. The rage warmed him and filled him up. It was a kind of friend” (p. 15). Discuss the effects of poverty on Thornhill and how it shapes the rest of his life.

3. In the London portion of The Secret River, readers may notice similarities with Charles Dickens’s depiction of the poverty and moral tone in nineteenth-century London. The Dickens version has become an archetype. Grenville is very effective at evoking the period, as well. How does her portrayal differ from the familiar Dickensian one? What devices does she use to articulate the era?

4. William meets Sal Middleton, through his sister Lizzie, “She was no beauty, but had a smile that lit up everything around her. The only shadow in her life was the graveyard where her brothers and sisters were buried” (p. 17). Talk about the early relationship between William and Sal. What is the attraction of each to the other? How do the differences in their early lives affect their relationship throughout the years of their marriage?

5. William spends seven years as an apprentice waterman to Sal’s father. “Folk always needed to get from one side of the river to the other, and coal and wheat always had to be got to the docks from the ships that brought them. As long as he kept his health he would never outright starve. He swore to himself that he would be the best apprentice, the strongest, quickest, cleverest. That when freed in seven years he would be the most diligent waterman on the whole of the Thames” (p. 25). What important lessons in addition to his trade do William learn from this experience? What do we learn about William’s fundamental character? At this point, what kind of a man would you say that he is?

6. After William marries Sal and they have their first child, their luck starts to change, and in spite of William’s good intentions they are driven to thievery. When inevitably William is caught, convicted, and sentenced to death, how do the differences in their characters (refer back to Question 4) affect the outcome? What kind of a woman is Sal?

7. Grenville’s descriptions of Sydney are very vivid and quickly establish a stark contrast with the urban landscape of London. “It was a raw scraped little place. There were a few rutted streets, either side of the stream threading its way down to the beach, but beyond them the buildings were connected by rough tracks like animals’ runs, as kinked among the rocks and trees as the trees themselves” (p. 79). How do the Thornhills react and adjust to their new surroundings and circumstances?

8. After Thornhill and Blackwood encounter Smasher Sullivan for the first time, Blackwood advises William, “Ain’t nothing in this world just for the taking . . . A man got to pay a fair price for taking . . . Matter of give a little, take a little” (p. 104). What does Blackwood already know and what is he trying to express to his friend?

9. When Thornhill goes up the river with Thomas Blackwood in The Queen a whole new world opens up to him. His hunger to own land is immediate and almost atavistic. Sal on the other hand is appalled at the thought of settling the land and becoming farmers. “Perhaps it was because she had not felt the rope around her neck. That changed a man forever” (p. 111). Do you agree with William’s reasoning?

10. Right from the beginning when the Thornhills stake out “their” land there is always a vague feeling of intrinsic threat. “My own, he kept saying to himself. My place. Thornhill’s place. But the wind in the leaves up on the ridge was saying something else entirely” (p. 139). Nothing in William’s experience has prepared him for the mysteries of this new land and its people. What does the land mean to him? What are his biggest delusions? Did you find him aggressive, ignorant, innocent, na’ve, full of rationales? Explain.

11. What is the biggest difference in Aboriginal culture and the white settlers’ culture? How does this impact everything that happens from the time that the Thornhills move from Sydney?

12. “For himself, he could take or leave a lot of them, but he made them welcome for Sal’s sake” (p. 162). Discuss your impressions of each of the Thornhill’s neighbors—Saggity, Mrs. Herring, the Webbs, Loveday, and of course Smasher and Blackwood. Smasher and Blackwood are at two extremes in their attitudes and behavior. Where would you place the others in relation to these two? How would you rank Thornhill? How do the white settlers interact? Are they helpful or harmful to one another?

13. In Kate Grenville’s depiction of Sal and of Mrs. Herring, what do you infer about the women who helped to settle New South Wales? What was Sal’s role, and how did it influence her behavior toward her husband and children? What always seems to keep her somewhat removed from William? Do you think that it took a certain kind of woman to endure the hardships of resettlement, or did all women of the lower classes have to endure difficult lives? What is the impression of women settler’s place in the history of Australia that you draw from this novel?

14. Thornhill goes to Sydney to acquire two convict servants, Dan and Ned, from amongst the newly transported English prisoners. Although they come from very similar circumstances, what makes Thornhill stand apart? How is it possible for him to slip into the role of master with such ease? Had the years in New South Wales changed his basic nature?

15. When young Dick is learning to make fire from one of the natives, we see that his perceptions differ greatly from his fathers. “Going on five, that child born at sea between one world and another was a solemn creature with a dreamy face in which Thornhill could not see any echo of his own. He could sit for hours crooning to himself and fiddling about with a few stones” (p. 119). In the end, Dick goes to live with Blackwood. What does this connote?

16. When things start to go very badly for the settlers, the government, in the persons of Captain McCallum and his soldiers, are sent to resolve the situation. There are many other historical occasions where this tragic scenario played itself out. Why is their plan doomed to failure?

17. Once the Thornhill’s corn crop is ruined, Sal’s forbearance is pushed past its limit. After she delivers her ultimatum, what changes forever between husband and wife? How does this change affect the outcome? Do you think it was inevitable?

18. Discuss the final battle scene as seen through the eyes of William Thornhill. “He closed his eyes. Like the old man on his knees he felt he might become something other than a human, something that did not do things in this sticky clearing that could never be undone” (p. 308). In today’s terms we would characterize Thornhill as conflicted. What are the elements at work in his psyche?

19. At the end it appears that William and Sal have realized all that they set out to do. They are successful, rich, and leading a life they could never have dreamed of back in London. However, their beautiful, grand new house isn’t quite right and Sal’s garden will not grow. Why, in spite of hard work and sacrifice don’t they have everything they wanted?

Suggestions for further reading:
English Passengers by Matthew Kneale; True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey; A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia by Thomas Keneally; The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes; The Bone People by Keri Hulme; In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson; The Singing Line by Alice Thomson; The Explorers by Tim Flannery; A Long Way Home: The Life and Adventures of the Convict Mary Bryant by Mike Walker; Dancing with Strangers by Inga Clendinnen; Searching for the Secret River by Kate Grenville.

Some films that you might enjoy:
Rabbit-Proof Fence, dir. by Phillip Noyce; My Brilliant Career, dir. by Gillian Armstrong; The Piano, dir. by Jane Campion; Once Were Warriors, dir. by Lee Tamahori; Whale Rider, dir. by Niki Caro; The Tracker, dir. by Rolf de Heer