The Secret River (2005)

Winner of the Commonwealth Prize for Literature
Winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction (the NSW Premier's Prize)
Winner of the Community Relations Commission Prize
Winner of the Booksellers' Choice Award
Winner of the Fellowship of Australian Writers Prize and
Winner of the Publishing Industry Book of the Year Award
Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize

The Secret River is part of a trilogy about early Australia (along with The Lieutenant, published in 2008, and Sarah Thornhill, published in Australia in September 2011).

It's set in the early nineteenth century, on what was then the frontier: the Hawkesbury River, fifty miles beyond Sydney.

William Thornhill, an illiterate Thames bargeman and a man of quick temper but deep feelings, steals a load of timber and is transported to New South Wales in 1806. Like many of the convicts, he's pardoned within a few years and settles on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Perhaps the Governor grants him the land or perhaps he just takes it – the Hawkesbury is at the extreme edge of settlement at that time and normal rules don't apply.

However he gets the land, it's prime riverfront acreage. It looks certain to make him rich.

There's just one problem with that land: it's already owned. It's been part of the territory of the Darug people for perhaps forty thousand years. They haven't left fences or roads or houses, but they live on that land and use it, just as surely as Thornhill's planning to do.

They aren't going to hand over their land without a fight. Spears may be primitive weapons, but settlers know that they can kill a man as surely as a ball of lead from a musket.

As he realises all this, Thornhill faces an impossible choice.

Some of his neighbours – Smasher Sullivan, Sagitty Birtles – regard the Darug as hardly human, savages with as little right to land as a dog. When the Darug object to being driven off, those settlers have no compunction in shooting or poisoning them.

Other neighbours make a different choice, and find ways to co-exist with the Darug. Blackwood has made a family among them. Mrs Herring "gives them when they ask".

Hostility between blacks and whites gradually escalates. Finally a group of settlers decides to go out and "settle" the Darug once and for all. Will Thornhill join them?

The decision he makes is with him for the rest of his life.

The Secret River plunges the reader into the experience of frontier life. What was it like – moment to moment, day by day – to have been in that situation? It doesn't judge any of the characters or their actions, only invites the reader to ask the question, "What might I have done in that situation?"

The Lieutenant, the second book of the trilogy, is set two decades earlier, when the first colonists arrived in New South Wales. In many ways it's a mirror-image of The Secret River, taking up some of the same themes but arriving at a very different outcome.

Searching for the Secret River is a memoir of the process of researching and writing The Secret River. It shows how events from the historical record were used in the novel, where they were changed, and the reasons for these choices. In drawing back the curtain on the process of writing fiction, it's also a useful and, I hope, reassuring account of the sometimes uncertain process of writing a work of fiction.

As well as Australasia, The Secret River has been published in the UK, Canada and the US, and in translation in France, Spain, Slovenia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, Norway, Israel and Portugal.  

The Secret River is published in Australia by Text Publishing.