The Secret River: Reviews


Local Reviews:
"One of the most entertaining, accomplished, engaging novels written in this country… it will live on as a classic."

"Grenville does it with such inventive energy, descriptive verve and genuine love of revitalising history that you'll bite the hand that tries to haul you away from this book… The Secret River is fabulous historical fiction."
(The Weekend Australian)

"A book everyone should read. It is evocative, gracefully written, terrible and confronting. And it has resonance for every Australian."
(Sunday Mail)

"Grenville has a reputation for elegant prose that cuts to the very heart of her subject matter with breathtaking precision. With The Secret River she has done it again in spades."
(Vogue Australia)

Grenville's new book is beautifully imagined and executed… subtle and satisfying."

"Such is the power of Grenville's imagination that everything seems newly minted."

"Settings are vividly evoked… 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."
(Sydney Morning Herald)

The Secret River stands out as a work of sustained power and imagination, of poetry and insight. No truer piece of fiction has been written about the Australian past."
(The Australian)

"This wonderful story about ownership and identity is filled with images that transports you immediately to its heart."
(Marie Claire)

"With The Secret River Kate Grenville has surpassed herself. The relevance of this tale of early transportation and contact with the Aboriginal people spreads far beyond Australian borders…a profoundly important book."
(Listener - New Zealand)

International Reviews:
"In spare, unpretentious prose, Grenville charts the brutal truth that violence breeds violence. Splendidly paced, passionate and disturbing."
(Sally Vickers, The Times)

"This is a moving account of the brutal collision of two cultures; but it is the vivid evocation of the harshly beautiful landscape that is the novel's outstanding achievement."
(Simon Humphreys, Mail on Sunday)

"A vivid and moving portrayal of poverty, struggle and the search for peace."

"Grenville shows again the excellent form that won her the Orange Prize."
(Sunday Times)

"An outstanding study of cultures in collision… a chilling, meticulous account of the sorrows and evils of colonialism…Kate Grenville is a sophisticated writer."
(Jem Poster, Guardian)

"This is not your standard historical novel. There is real tenderness and sympathy."
(The Times)

"She gives a fiercely intelligent portrayal of a clash of cultures…in consequence the novel works on two levels: the historical and particular, and the philosophical, bringing into question the extent to which it is possible to own anything, even one's life."
(Times Literary Supplement)

"A richly layered tale of a fierce and unforgiving backdrop, the quest for its ownership, and the brutal price paid by those who would colonise it it vividly described… this is a dramatic, beautiful work - on a par with Patrick White or Sally Morgan - that will ensure Grenville's place on the international market."
(Scotland on Sunday)

"Grenville writes prose which is immediately engaging. There are overtones of Macbeth in this study in how a man, not inherently evil, can be corrupted by circumstances. Grenville's skill is to turn what could have been too obviously a representative moral fable into a rich novel of character."
(Sunday Telegraph)

"A few sentences of Grenville's makes one realise that much of the writing one encounters in a novel these days is thin and perfunctory. Reading The Secret River may put you off anything less accomplished for a while."
(Daily Express)

"The Secret River is a sad book, beautifully written."

A revelation… an engrossing account of early Australian history… she has written honestly and credibly about the complexity of the relationship between Aborigine and white settler."
(Sunday Tribune, Dublin)

"Grenville controls terrifying material without resorting to polemic. Her sense of humanity elevates her work beyond simply rage or sentimentality. This is why she is a major writer and, with Peter Carey, a worth heir of Patrick White."
(Irish Times)

"Kate Grenville, an Australian writer of impeccable talents, conjures up this new South Wales as few writers could - with sentences so astonishingly muscular and right that readers will dream the landscape at night… the Secret River is a masterwork, a book that transcends its historical fiction and becomes something deeply contemporary and pressing. Nothing save for pure genius can explain the quality of this book. Against every measure by which a book might be judged, this one transcends. It deserves every prize it already has received, and every prize yet to come."
(Chicago Tribune)

"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))

"For the Australian pioneer of Kate Grenville's hugely filmic The Secret River, a land of opportunity becomes a moral wilderness worthy of Conrad."

"Grenville earns her praise, presenting the settler-aboriginal conflict with equanimity and understanding, sharp prose and a vivid frontier family."
(Publishers' Weekly)

"There are books which when you have turned the final page leave you unable to speak or move from the place you have been reading; this is just such a book… a riveting story of forging a new life on a breathtakingly described Australian frontier, the conflict between the new arrival and the aboriginal population, and the price of success."
(The Boston Globe)

"This novel is a perceptive and masterful portrayal of the lives of some of Australian's earliest European settlers… the clash between the old and new worlds is elegantly conveyed, as is that between the native Australians and the settlers."
(Independent Booksellers Book Sense Picks)

"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."
(The New Yorker)

"The stage is set for a confrontation that seems inevitable but never predestined. Grenville is too sly a writer for that. 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."
(The Boston Globe)

"Grenville is a fine, poetic writer who takes a lot of risks… What's remarkable about the novel is not how it recreates time and place, but the way Grenville manages to make us understand Thornhill's state of mind... the story hones towards violence and retribution, retaliation and escalation like a thriller."

"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. 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."
(The Washington Post)

"Americans will find Grenville's eloquent pioneer story at once foreign and stunningly familiar."
(Entertainment Weekly)

"Plotting and characterisation are so skilful 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."

"I consumed Kate Grenville's The Secret River in one sitting… it is so darn good, a powerful novel told in the unique language of Australians. Want a satisfying, memorable read, one that you can recommend to family and friends? The Secret River will not let you down."
(Sun Times Review)

Grenville masterfully creates distinct and entirely believable worlds. The strength of her writing lies in her ability to create setting… her depiction of the aboriginals is fascinating and insightful."
(Globe Review)

"An astounding novel."
(Powell's Books)

A Close Read
The riverbank seemed to undergo a change of air. The old man's face closed down into its creases of shadows. His hand reached around and got the curved wooden club from the string round his waist. The younger man took a step forward, the spear up in his hand, poised on the balls of his feet, his face grim. From the trees Thornhill heard the scrape of wood on wood and knew it to be the sound of spears being fitted by invisible hands along spear-throwers. He heard Sal give a squashed cry as she heard it too, and a wail from Johnny cut short with her hand over his mouth."
(From The Secret River)

This paragraph , with the word poised at its centre, depicts anticipation perfectly. Every sentence pulses with an active verb - seemed, closed, reached and got, took, and heard - while at the same time the specificity of detail forces the scene into slow motion. The club doesn't suddenly appear in the old man's hand, but is systematically retrieved in a sentence that indirectly - with the words around, curved and round - suggests the menace of circling. Although the description of the young man is as taut as the man himself - a series of discrete observations crisply separated by commas - it is also thorough. Grenville allows time to examine him up and down, from hand to feet to face. The spear fitting, too, is drawn out: first comes the sound, then the interpretation. The suspense builds as it shifts from the metaphorical in the initial two sentences to the real, and continues to crescendo as Grenville moves from the old man, whose threat may be mainly gestural, to the young man, whose spear could certainly kill Thornhill, to the invisible hands that could easily wipe out all of Thornhill's family, to the poignant representatives of that family - his wife and infant son - whose very cries are "squashed" and muffled, so as not to upset the exquisite balance of this moment and cause the spears to fly."
(Christina Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly)

Reviews from Germany
" A masterpiece. Can there be any other historical novel as totally convincing as Kate Grenville's The Secret River? Can we hope for another novel explaining landscapes and human interaction with such a sensual precision? I dare to doubt! It's questionable that there is a novel this season as thrilling and gripping as this literary masterpiece….

Today Kate Grenville is one of the important narrative writers in the whole Anglo-Saxon world. She has found a unique was of describing the elemental confrontation of an unsophisticated white man with the eerie, positively fascinating Aborigines and their frightening, `primitive' culture.

She gives this historical novel a deep and impressive literary dimension."
(Gerhard Beckmann)

Deggendorfer Zeitung, Deggendorf
`…This book can't undo all the suffering the original inhabitant had to endure, but it can build a bridge between different cultures. It can make a contribution to understanding human responses to extreme situations…'

`a fascinating novel showing "down-under' from a completely different angle.'
(Die Woche)

`This book is a thrilling novel with heaps of historical sources and gripping pictures of Australian settlement.'
(Radio Euroherz)

`It's difficult to escape the way this novel draws the reader in - full marks!'

`Thrilling, passionate, stirring…'

` Subtle and critical, Grenville weaves the success story of her ancestors around the historical tragedy which is still an important part of Australian society today.'
(NZZam Sonntag, Zurich)

` A great project, highly praised and prize-winning. The book is well-researched, generously narrated and strives to understand the injustice done towards the Aborigines.'
(Die Welt, Berlin)

`This is the story of the battle between two very different cultures, with only one loser. Yet Grenville shows, in her grand novel, that the acknowledged winner cannot get away without scars.'
(Echo, Austria)

`Kate Grenville uses beautiful terse language to describe in an outstanding way the poor living conditions in early London. A tense, emotional novel.'
(Blick, Zurich)

` A thrilling book, but written with great sensitivity. Simply and vividly told.'
(SBD Bibliotheksservice)

`William Thornhill is Kate Grenville's very real model for her book - he is her great-great-great grandfather - exiled as a convict to Australia, struggling to survive, taking up land and finally being buried as a rich man after a rise to success.

But Kate Grenville doesn't glorify her ancestor, instead she shows in detail the price the settlers and Aborigines have to pay - that violence creates more violence. Kate Grenville creates an oppressive atmosphere filled with fear in which the white intruders have to live and where they bring guilt upon themselves...a book which one day had to be written.'
(Monika Burghard, Radio Berlin)

`Kate Grenville was highly praised for The Secret River, and with good reason. The book is oppressive and tragic but also an informative historical novel, based on the colonization of Australia without a romanticised `adventure story' view of those times. Kate Grenville defends the Aborigines, but she doesn't moralise. Her narrative is sensitive and urgent, describing the lives of settlers and Aborigines living together.

Over a long period of time, William and Sal try to make a peaceful livelihood. They become rich, but guilt stays like a shadow over their new good fortune…A thrilling and gripping Australian novel.'
(Buchbesprechungen 2006)

`Kate Grenville creates with fantastically described scenery and vivid characters an impressive picture of an unknown world. She points out how hunger, dirt and illness affect humans: the result is frequently brutalisation and cruelty. William and Sal resist that with strength, endurance and love.

The novel takes the reader into a past epoch, but through the theme of the loss of values due to poverty it also has a contemporary relevance.'

In the 19th century, British convicts were part of the first white settlement in Australia. The fate of these, the poorest of the poor, who expelled the Aborigines to gain freedom for themselves, has never achieved enough attention until now, in Kate Grenville's view.

The book, honoured with the Commonwealth Prize 2006, is qualified to fill in a blank place in the history of colonisation.'
(Westdeutsche Zeitung)

`Kate Grenville writes compellingly about life in the British penal colony - about misery, love and the struggle to survive. She describes how land was taken at that time and doesn't conceal the atrocities done against, and by, the Aborigines.

A deeply moving book which stimulates reflection - a book you simply have to read.'
(Mostviertel-Basart )

Back to top