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Old 11-04-2013, 03:34 PM   #46
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I think that being basically a decent man and knowing what they were doing was wrong, firing that first shot would have been a very difficult thing to do.

I have never forgotten an interview with someone involved in the Bosnian conflict, who was asked if it was hard killing people. "Oh no" he said, "It's easy to kill people. It's only hard to kill the first one."
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Old 11-09-2013, 03:12 PM   #47
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It's been an extra busy month, and I finally have been able to finish this book. In fact I admit to alternating between the ebook and audiobook (thank you Amazon Whispersync!). It was a fantastic narration, and I found it added even more emotion and power to the scenes.

First, I want to thank Bookpossum for the fantastic nominations and leading this discussion. I also have appreciated the insights and experiences shared by our Australian friends to help us better understand the culture and history of their country. This book is the third that I have read this year about Australia, and I very much hope to visit there someday. I have added several of the nominations to my TBR list as well.

I thought the last part of the book set in the future was a bit too over-done, although I liked the direction that it took. William Thornhill finds wealth and a higher place in society, but he is never rested or satisfied. Nothing seems to go perfect either: the architectural harmony of the house is off-balance, Sal's garden and the poplars don't thrive, his son Dick ignores him, the hired portrait hidden away, always watching from the bench every evening, etc.

In September I read Ramona, an American 19th century classic by Helen Hunt Jackson. It tells the story of southern California after the Mexican-American war and deals with the racial conflicts of the Americans, Mexicans, Spanish and Native Indian tribes as Americans flood into the new state and take over the land as their own. It, however, is primarily told from the perspectives of the Native Americans who are displaced and killed as well as the Mexicans and Spanish who also lose their land. I had that recent reading in the back of my mind as a comparison as I read the Secret River told from the perspective of the settlers.

There were some beautifully written passages, and I took lots of highlights. These particular ones resonated with me at the turning point of the book when they disperse the natives.

Quote:
He knew all of these men, had laughed with them over a drink, haggled with them for their wheat and pumpkins. By and large he had never considered them to be bad men. And yet their lives, like his, had somehow brought them to this: waiting for the tide to turn, so they could go and do what only the worst of men would do. (location 4014)

How had his life funnelled down to this corner, in which he had so little choice? His life had funnelled down once before, in Newgate, into the dead-end of the condemned cell. But the thing that lay ahead of him there had been out of his hands. There was a kind of innocence in waiting for Mr Executioner. The difference with this was that he was choosing it, of his own free will. (location 4024)

The noose would have ended his life, but what he was about to do would end it too. Whichever choice he made, his life would not go on as it had before. The William Thornhill who had woken up that morning would not be the same William Thornhill who went to bed tomorrow night. (location 4027)
Kate Grenville has a website which has posted some of her interviews.
http://kategrenville.com/node/71

Here is a quote from one of the interviews that I found interesting to understand what she hoped for readers to gain from her book.

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There seemed no point in writing a book about a monster, an unequivocally bad man. That would let us off the hook. Oh, we could smugly say, I'm not like that, I'd never do that. Then we turn away and there's been no enlargement of understanding.

But the reason for writing the book was to delve into exactly that tricky area: us: that is, white Australians like me, who've benefited from what our ancestors did. Where can we stand, morally?

Exploring that question takes us far beyond easy labels. It takes us into understanding why a man like Thornhill might do what he does. That's a complicated knot of many threads: his own past, his feeling for right and wrong, pressure from the culture around him, love for his family, self-interest.... In the end, I felt he was a man neither better nor worse than most, but had been acted on by all those factors to do somethiong that was deeply wrong and which, in his heart, he knew to be deeply wrong.

It also takes us right into the present, back to us, where there's no simple way to accommodate the wrongs that our ancestors did. The more I explored this troubling subject, the less sure I was of any simple answers. One thing I could see, though, was a moral imperative to try to tell the story of what had happened on the frontier - to tell it as truthfully as I could ( within the necessary shapings of fiction) and to tell it as fully as I could ( not leaving out the parts we flinch from). Acknowledgement seemed a necessary first step, without which nothing better was likely to happen.
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Old 11-09-2013, 08:38 PM   #48
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Thanks for the kind words, Bookworm_Girl, and thanks also for finding the quote from Kate Grenville. I should have thought of doing that.
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Old 11-09-2013, 09:45 PM   #49
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Thanks for that Grenville quote. It helps you to see what was on her mind while writing. I also liked that she really set out trying to understand rather than just to condemn. She has taken the more difficult path and I really appreciated it.
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Old 11-10-2013, 05:30 AM   #50
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Originally Posted by caleb72 View Post
Thanks for that Grenville quote. It helps you to see what was on her mind while writing. I also liked that she really set out trying to understand rather than just to condemn. She has taken the more difficult path and I really appreciated it.
Ditto
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Old 11-15-2013, 02:35 PM   #51
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I really enjoyed the book. I found it to have many contrasts and comparisons with Heart of Darkness.

For most of the book, I wasn't so pleased with most of the characterisations. I felt that the author was battling with herself, wanting to create nuanced and realistic characters while often slipping into stereotypes, generalisations and a modern sensibility, from the good Blackwood to the bad Smasher, from the noble savages to the Thornhills who were always given a reason to explain away any bad they did.

However with the end of the book my perception of the characterisations changed. I had thought the likely outcome of the book was to be a crisis for Thornhill where he learnt from his mistakes and took the moral high road, and so I was taken off guard when the crisis occurred and he instead gave into immorality and decided to go to the massacre. He was still given the relative out of barely participating, but I think his choice to go at all and participate no matter how little was his irreversible breaking bad moment.

Perhaps for Grenville there was a mistake in choosing for her protagonist someone so closely resembling someone in her own family tree, where it can be viewed as her trying to explain away things her descendants may have done, a sort of fantasy of her descendants being otherwise good and upright people almost forced into doing certain bad things by circumstance, and this was as true of the Thornhills time in England as of their time in Australia.

Regardless, she had Thornhill participate in the massacre, and prosper from it. Whether she meant it or not, once that happened the modern sensibility she may have given Thornhill before didn't matter to me as much, and in fact I could even view it as a building up of a man with a morality that we could somewhat relate to, only to then subvert expectations with him choosing to do something truly terrible. The ending shed a different light on the rest of the book because Grenville didn’t imbue Thornhill with a sense of morality to have him overcome the immorality of what was going on in Australia at the time, but rather to give in to it, no matter how unwillingly. And so, despite some simpleness at times, to me this book becomes a more complex meditation on morality and its vagaries in difficult situations.

I had quite a fun time looking around on Google maps at the river (the map in the beginning of the book was too hard to see, as is general for ebook maps unfortunately). Before I knew just how closely locations followed real locations, I was trying to guess just which point might be Thornhill's if it were a real point, and I'm happy to say I guessed correctly! I had no idea at the time that Thornhill was so closely based on Wiseman, only that the story was loosely based on ancestors of Grenville's, and so I just wasn't quite sure if she would've had Thornhill settle on a point that today is a small town with a ferry, but the point just looked so close to the description, and little did I know that the real Thornhill was the one who basically settled and started the town! I had even looked up the river near it trying to decide where Blackwood's place might have been (and saw many lagoons to choose from).

I see now that Bookpossum provided some very interesting pictures of the point earlier in the thread, and I'd like to add a few pictures. These are of the house built at the end of the story by Thornhill, which was actually a real house built by Wiseman. it's now an inn and pub:





Whenever I finally go to Australia, I'm tempted to take an overnight trip out of Sydney to stay there one night.

There are two places I do have a hard time locating on the map compared to the book - Smasher’s place and the “secret river” where Thornhill finds the poisoned Aborigines. From the way they were written they seem to both be specific places, and I see on the map some possibilities but nothing that seems obviously correct.

I thought it interesting how at the end of the book, Grenville resolved the differences in Thornhill’s story with her own ancestor Wiseman by having Thornhill “steal” a better history from another man that is very similar to Wiseman’s biography. I do wonder though at the reason given for the other man not minding. She writes that, “Loveday had found a new story, too, involving a young girl, a cruel father and a false accusation. He was not going to ask for his old one back.” Were we supposed to understand what this meant?

As for the writing, I enjoyed how perceptive Grenville was of the smaller things in life. Such as

Quote:
Thornhill saw for the first time how much she missed having people around her. It was a little death, not being able to make a tale out of the small moments of life and share them with someone for whom they were new.
Quote:
But none of the women so much as glanced at her, although it was evident from some slight alteration in the way they held themselves that they had heard.
Quote:
There was a daintiness of thinking to Smasher, Thornhill realised, that would have been better employed if his life had been different.
And I’ll finish by saying I often liked her prose as well, such as

Quote:
Whatever the shadow was that lived with them, it did not belong just to him, but to her as well: it was a space they both inhabited. But it seemed there was no way to speak into that silent place. Their lives had slowly grown around it, the way the roots of a river-fig grew around a rock.
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Old 11-15-2013, 05:22 PM   #52
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Great post sun surfer and I'm so glad the book won you over.

I believe the genesis of the book was the time when we had walks for reconciliation. Kate Grenville was participating in the walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge and at one stage was walking alongside an Aboriginal woman of about her own age. She knew that she had ancestors stretching back to the early stages of the colony, and it led her to speculate on whether any of her ancestors might have been a part of what happened between those early settlers and the ancestors of the woman next to her.

ETA: For anyone wanting to read anything more about Aboriginal/settler relations, I can thoroughly recommend "Remembering Babylon" by David Malouf, which I have just read. It is quite different from "The Secret River", a meditation on language and lost opportunities. It is beautifully written and heart-breaking.

Last edited by Bookpossum; 11-15-2013 at 05:29 PM.
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Old 11-26-2013, 11:19 AM   #53
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Great post, sun surfer, and I love the picture of the house.

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Originally Posted by fantasyfan View Post
Sal actually has an epiphany when she realises that the Native Australians share her common humanity. Thorhnill comes very close to this realisation himself, but when he decides to join Smasher’s “posse”, ironically because he feels it is the only way to hold on to Sal, he loses that possibility of moral growth.
I've been meaning to respond to this bit, since I found Sal to be both unreal and distasteful. The noble Sal of the beginning deteriorated markedly once she got to Australia, which is fair enough I suppose as everyone has a breaking point, but it she hadn't been such a Mary Sue at first it wouldn't have seemed such an about-face.

Thornhill also had his epiphany when he saw the Aborigines as gentry. I think that's the biggest problem with epiphanies; too often they're evanescent. In the end, Sal also was complicit. Whether or not Thornhill had no alternative, or felt he didn't, is arguable and of course he's responsible for his own actions, but Sal was willing to accept and benefit from their materially changed circumstances post-massacre, and she knew. Didn't ask, to preserve her and Thornhill's deniability, but she knew.
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