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After being wowed by Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (see my review here), I thought it would be interesting to revisit another celebrated colonial-era ‘first-contact’ novel: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.  It is the story of poverty-stricken Thames waterman William Thornhill, convicted to hang for the theft of Brazil wood, and his wife, Sal.  Thornhill escapes hanging only to be transported to New South Wales and after being assigned to his wife and making some progress in the ‘Camp’ that would become Sydney, builds a successful shipping business ferrying goods and produce to and from the farms on the Hawkesbury River, north ofSydney.  This is the ‘secret river’ of the novel’s title: [p100]:

Thornhill strained to find that secret river.  In every direction, the reaches of Broken Bayseemed to end in yet another wall of rock and forest.  A man could sail for days and never find his way into the Hawkesbury.    

(As an aside, this is not only lyrical writing, but also historically accurate: when the first explorers set off from Sydney to explore Broken Bay they completely missed the main river so hidden was its course.)

It is on his first trip up the river, helping an older lighterman, Thomas Blackwood, that Thornhill spies a plot of land which he calls Thornhill’s Point, and a yearning for it is kindled, a longing to own a piece of land that would be beyond him in London.  All he had to do was pitch up and take it – oh, and convince his Missus that it was a good idea.  There were a lot of stories inSydneyabout troubles with the aboriginals on the Hawkesbury so she is quite nervous about moving there.  So too is Thornhill.

Right from the start Grenville has Thornhill facing up to the aboriginals, even if it is old ‘Scabby Bill’, an old native who dances for a sup of rum in Sydney.  There is a sense that things will not work out well.  Thornhill thinks, [p5]: “There were worse things than dying: life had taught him that.  Being here in New South Wales might be one of them.”

Grenville’s writing is evocative; her sense of place is exacting.  Thornhill grows up in grinding, stomach-aching poverty inLondon, where the [p9] “light struggled in through small panes of cracked glass and the soot from the smoking fireplace veiled the walls.”  Have a look at those word choices(!): struggled, small, cracked, soot, veiled: his life reeks of cold, hunger, and want.

He admires Sal and enjoys being in her house, [p17]:  “It was easy to wish to belong to this house … He could imagine how he would grow into himself in the warmth of such a home.  It … was the feeling of having a place.”

This theme of having a home, something of his own, feeds his desire to set up on the secret river.  There, Thornhill and Sal – as well as their burgeoning brood of children – come into the realm of a hardy bunch of white-settler neighbours, although the closest is an hour away.  Some of these are intent on eradication of the natives, people like Smasher Sullivan and Sagitty Birtles.  Others, like Blackwood, are more than sympathetic to the natives.  Blackwood has had a daughter to an aboriginal woman.  Tensions are already high between these various factions, and whenever they get together talk quickly turns to the question of the latest ‘depredations’ of the natives.

One of the great plot elements here is Sal’s great reluctance to leaveSydneyand take up land on the Hawkesbury.  They come to an agreement: she would give him five years and then they would return toLondon.  The deal sets up great tension.  We know he wants to stay and she wants to leave.  What will give?

Thornhill plants corn on his land, in part to say to all-comers, ‘this is my land.’  In the process he rips out the yam daisies that are a staple for the local aboriginals.  This theft of food supply is an oft-repeated early flashpoint in colonial settlements around Australia, and is thus very realistic.

Elsewhere, historical accuracy has been questioned.  Much has been made of the climax of the book as well as how believable it is for Smasher to get away with his constant acts of depravity against the natives.  Aboriginal Law works on a ‘payback’ system.  Whilst aboriginals had a collective system of guilt in which the perpetrator’s family members could be substituted for ritual payback, aboriginals picked out the guilty where they could.  Watkin Tench, a first fleet lieutenant, told the death of the governor’s game keeper, who it seems, was speared for payback for his presumed killings of aboriginals.  It stretches credulity, say critics, that Smasher was not subject to payback by the local aboriginals, particularly as he lives by himself.  Such are the dangers of historical fiction!  It seems that, for some, it is not good enough writing a gripping ‘story’, a work of historical fiction must be believable in every sense of the history of the time.  I’m in two minds about this.  Stories should ‘ring true’ but at the end of the day they are fiction.  Grenville was at pains to point out that The Secret River was a work of fiction and not history.  Smasher is an evil man but a good fictional character, just as Blackwood is a good character.  They each serve their purpose in building the conflict that drives the story.

What Grenville does brilliantly is make us sympathise with a character who will end up doing something unspeakable.  Some point to the unusual novelistic end where Thornhill goes unpunished for his deeds.  Yet Thornhill is punished: one of his sons, Dan, who grew up on the river and swam with black children and learned some of their ways, like how to make fire, deserts Thornhill and goes to live with the broken Blackwood.  This estrangement pains Thornhill.  But what pains him even more is his searching of the ridge-tops at the end with his looking glass, trying to spot an aboriginal still living in the wilds.  One gets the feeling that had he his time again he would have made another choice.  It’s not the punishment society should meter out to him, but it is a never-ending suffering all the same.

Thornhill and Sal are left altered by the events: [p324-5]:

They were loving to each other still.  She smiled at him with that sweet mouth.  He took her hand to feel its narrowness in his own and she did not resist.  Whatever the shadow was that lived with them, it did not belong to just 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 space.  Their lives had slowly grown around it, the way the roots of a river-fig grew around a rock. 

Also eloquent are the many descriptive passages of the Australian environment, from the bush aroundSydneyto the river landscape of the Hawkesbury.   Thornhill’s first night inSydneyis spent listening: [p3]:

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. 

A month or two back I read Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, her memoir of the process of writing the book.  (I’d recommend the book for anyone who wants to ‘see behind the curtain’ so-to-speak; for anyone else, it might break the spell.)  One of the interesting sections in that book was a chapter on how hard she had to work to get the dialogue right.  She ended up taking advice from Annie Proulx who talked about the rhythm of the dialogue, how altering word order and using the odd old word changes the ‘sound’.  Grenville writes in Searching:

… I decided that my job as a novelist wasn’t to reconstruct the authentic … eighteenth-century vernacular.  My job was to produce something that sounded authentic.

She sourced dialogue from Old Bailey Court Sessions which are now online.  The dialogue comes in short bursts, in italics, subsumed within paragraphs.  Characters often talk around things rather than in a direct manner.  It’s a very interesting re-creation of 18th century dialogue.  Mostly I found it convincing, (although the repeated ‘Damn your eyes’ became a little tiresome!)

It is interesting that Grenville refers to her protagonist throughout the book as ‘Thornhill’ rather than ‘William’, something she repeated for her character Rooke in her wonderful follow-up novel The Lieutenant (see my review).  I wonder why this is?  Is it because she didn’t want us to get too close to Thornhill, or is it simply a choice based on the way people were known in 1800?  If you have any insight, let me know.

When I first read The Secret River I thought theLondon section a little long.  This time round I thought the pacing was excellent.  (It’s funny how we change our minds on some things with a second reading.)

The Secret River has elements of similarity with That Deadman Dance – the dwindling sources of food, the blundering settlers, the clash of cultures, the demise of the natives – but Scott’s novel is elegiac and offers a sense of possibility and hope.  The Secret River is a very different animal.  Both are excellent.  Let’s hope that we can build not as William Thornhill does – covering the fish carved by the aboriginals in the rock with his stone-walled home – but as Bobby Wabalanginy would have us do, with a sense of togetherness.

The Secret River won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize (won by Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (see my review here); for mine, The Secret River is the better book).

There’s an interesting discussion of the book on the Guardian’s Book Club website, including an interview with Kate Grenville: see here.

There’s also a lively discussion on The Secret River on the ABC First Tuesday Book Club’s website.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Text Publishing

2005

ISBN:9781921520341

334 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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Do you like a good brouhaha?  I do.  Even if it’s just so I can use that word: brouhaha.  And that’s certainly what we’ve had in the last week since the shortlist for the Miles Franklin was announced.  Of course, last year it was all the ‘genre’ debate when Peter Temple won for Truth.  Not satisfied, this year we’ve doubled up with two debates!  The first of these is on the prize’s requirement that books portray ‘Australian life in any of its phases’.  Does this shut out some novels, some themes?  The other is the gender debate.  Three shortlisted novels and no female authors.  Feathers have flown!  These are important debates and need an airing.  The number of female winners (13 by my count) of the MF is small compared to male winners (40, soon to be 41) – roughly 24%.  That seems low, but it’s just a statistic.  I’d love to join the cut and thrust, but I’ve felt compelled to sit on the sidelines.  The reason?  Pure and simple: I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist, let alone the long-list.  How can I point to any bias when I can’t support my arguments?  All I can do is quote statistics and we all know what they say about them.  Numbers give us a headline, and perhaps part of a story, but the whole story deserves more intellectual firepower than the Dilettante has at his disposal.  (And look – it’s got me talking about myself in the third person, that can’t be a good thing!) 

The only downside to a brouhaha is that it creates noise.  Books that have been shortlisted, like Kim Scott’s novel, are at risk of being drowned out.  And that would be a shame, for That Deadman Dance is a fine novel. 

It tells the story of first contact between ‘the pale horizon people’ and the indigenous Noongar people in the area ofAlbany and King George Sound on the southern West Australian coastline. 

The story is layered, multi-stranded and non-linear.  There is a large and wonderful set of characters.  There are shifts between Noongar and settler points of views and ways of seeing.  The different time frames have caused some readers difficulty.  I found a couple of small sections a little hard to follow at first, but overall I didn’t find the shifts too difficult.  I think a second reading would illuminate them even more.  There is certainly no way of missing where the story is and where it is heading in a larger sense.  What they sometimes produce is a bit of repetition which I found, in some cases at least, a little ponderous.  It hope to learn more about these shifts when Scott talks about the novel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. 

For the most part, Scott’s writing has a lovely rhythm to it.  This is no surprise given his Noongar heritage, for the Noongar are a very musical people.  Noongar language is often used which adds a depth and a sense of music to the prose.  The environment is wonderfully drawn too.  There are touches of Melville’s Moby-Dick in the whaling scenes – the peeling of whale blubber “like rind from an orange” is a notable echo [p242]. 

I enjoyed the way Scott weaves in the aboriginal customs and culture into the story, how he explains things.  There are some nice ironic inversions too.  For example, [p13] we have Menak, one the elders of the Noongar, thinking about the newcomers: “… if nothing else, they might be useful allies against others who, to Menak’s mind, were little more than savages.”  [my emphasis]

Relationships between Noongar and settlers occur on several levels.  There is sharing, mutual benefit and friendship.  There is love.  There is misunderstanding, theft, betrayal and whitewashing.  There is murder and loss. 

Among the first colonists is Dr Cross who lets the Noongar sleep in his house and share his food.  He understands the land has been seized from them.  “He is our friend,” says Wooral, another elder, [p24].  But already Menat, the sole female elder, is seeing what Wooral cannot, that [p24] the white men more generally are “Devils!  Smile to your face but turn around and he is your enemy.  These people chase us from our own country.  They kill our animals and if we eat one of their sheep … they shoot us.”  Menak, growing into his role as one of the few elders after sickness takes the lives of many Noongar, listens closely to her argument.  It shapes him, the story, and in the end it shapes us. 

Dr Cross looks out for one of the Noongar in particular: Bobby Wabalanginy, whose name means [p39], “all of us playing together”.  This is the story’s theme in a nutshell.  He is a young Noongar boy when the story starts.  We see him dancing on a ship’s deck.  He is a leader.  It is obvious in his dancing, for when he first danced he broke out of the ‘chorus’ line, if I can use that term, and comes centre stage, joining the elder leading the dance even though he is the youngest amongst them.  Bobby is playful, comic, a performer.  His stories come with a smile and ready wink.  When he recounts his story he says of himself, [p67], “Bobby … never learned fear; not until he was pretty well a grown man did he ever even know it.”  For Bobby, that deadman dance “was a dance of life”.  Bobby is the fulcrum around which the large cast of characters swings.  He is the binding between peoples, growing up in both camps, just like Kim Scott himself. 

Good Dr Cross dies and is buried next to his great friend Wunyeran.  It is Bobby who tells us of this earliest contact, the love between the two men, the sharing.  Bobby [p350] “imagined their bodies rolling toward another as the flesh fell away, bones touching, spirits fusing in the earth.”  But the graves are disturbed for progress’ sake and Cross is removed to another graveyard while Wunyeran’s bones are left exposed, stolen by dogs, crunched by thoughtless builders.  Bobby is dismayed, as are we: the division and ‘leaving behind’ metaphor is powerful.   

Cross is replaced by the mercantile Chaine.  He controls trade with the whalers and begins to hunt whales.  He employs Bobby who acts as a steerer on one of Chaine’s whaleboats.  For a time there is a shared pursuit.  There is ‘plenty’.  Bobby is happy, although he does not delight in the deaths of the whales and doesn’t eat them – he has a special affinity with them [p274]: “Bobby heard the whales singing.  They sang for him.”  Menak, older now, set in his ways, defiant, he sees the devastation of the whales for what it is.  He mourns the doleful music their bones make on the beaches.  He knows they will run out.  

In the early days the colonists are outnumbered by the blacks.  There is fear.  Over time the balance of power shifts.  By the end the whitefellas have the ascendency, the Noongar are the minority.  Food is scarce.  The whales are gone, hunted almost to extinction.  When the whites arrived the blacks shared their food with them.  Now their food is gone, they want to share the sheep of the white man but he is not willing.  Food was always a flashpoint in all first contact relationships, from the days of Sydney Cove on.  

In the second part (1826-30) we are thrown a little we go back in time but the narrator is Bobby looking back on these years from some future time.  He recounts his life for tourists, for scraps.  But even here he is a showman, not just because of a natural inclination, but out of necessity.  He needs that showmanship to earn a crust.  He says, [106]:

Me and my people … My people and I (he winked) are not so good traders as we thought.  We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything of ours.  We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours… 

He is then forced to add directly after:

But yes, of course, you’re right, you’re right; my life is good, and I am happy to talk to everyone, and welcome you as friends.  The same God and the same good King looks over us all, does he not, my fellow subjects?

And what can we do for Bobby now, after all that has happened to him and the Noongar?  Bobby (and Scott) offers us this, [p128]:

All his friends and family kept that boy Bobby Wabalanginy alive, just by loving him, wanting him, and wanting him to stay where he was.  Stay is his place.

With the unravelling of relationships and the demise of the promise of the earliest friendships, we sense that things cannot end well.  Old Menak and Menat lose their status as proper elders.  Bobby begins to make trouble, railing against the injustices perpetrated by Chaine and the colonists. 

Bobby has this to say about the power of stories, how they can transform us, [p86]:

… you can dive deep into a book and not know just how deep until you return gasping to the surface, and are surprised at yourself, your new and so very sensitive skin.  As if you’re someone else altogether, some new self trying on the words. 

The end is poignant, powerful, memorable.  When I finished That Deadman Dance I just wanted to sit with its final images.  Turn them over in my mind.  Feel them resonate.  I wanted to go and find Bobby and say to him, ‘What can we do together?’  We should all be facing Bobby Wabalanginy, looking at his dance, embracing his offer of friendship, of family.  Our bones will all go down to the sea together and mix with the bones of whales and become something else.  In the meantime we should face him.  For all those wrapped up in other debates about missing books and themes and authors, take a seat and share Bobby’s story.  Those debates are important, but there is no more important theme than our country, our people, our family, how we might share the past and the future. 

That Deadman Dance is an important book.  

I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing Kim Scott at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a few short weeks.  That Deadman Dance is shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the winner of which will be announced at the festival.  Can’t wait.      

Lisa over at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed That Deadman Dance, (as well as the other two MF shortlisted books). 

And Morag Fraser’s – one of the MF judges – loved it too.  See her SMH review.

The Dilettante’s Rating: 4.5/5

That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

Picador

2010

ISBN: 9781405040440

395 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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It’s that time of year again (yay!).  The Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) is but a few weeks away and the programme has just been released. 

There’s a great selection of local and international writers.  A quick perusal has got me lining up the likes of:

  • Our very own Kim Scott, talking about his recent, highly acclaimed novel, That Deadman Dance, up for Best Book Award in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
  • Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Booker Prize for The Finkler Question;
  • The very imaginative David Mitchell, talking about his most recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, (see my review here);
  • Tea Obreht, member of The New Yorker magazine’s “20 under 40”, talking about her acclaimed novel, The Tiger’s Wife; 
  • Michael Cunningham of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours fame;   
  • Markus Zusak of The Book Thief fame, (see my review here); 
  • Interesting indigenous sessions, covering culture, art, fiction, poetry;
  • Poetry and Sydney-centric sessions, including the likes of Cate Kennedy and too many others to mention!;

The Festival also sees theawarding of several high-profile literary awards, including The Commonwealth Writers Prize (will Kim Scott win for That Deadman Dance?), the NSW Premier’s Awards, and the Sydney Morning Herald Young Writers’ Award.  I plan on attending the awarding of the Commonwealth Prize as well as a session the next day in which the judges will talk about their deliberations (and arguments?!) and how they arrived at the winner. 

There’s plenty of non-fiction-focusses things on too.  Politics, culture, environment, food.  Indeed, foodies should not be disappointed with Anthony Bourdain and critic AA Gill featuring.  There’ll also be many sessions for children, and other interests far and wide. 

Looks like a busy few days for me, although Sunday seems strangely clear.  A little imbalance in the programme perhaps?  Whatever the case, there’s plenty of interesting things to listen to and get involved in across the week and I can’t wait to blog about it. 

Anyone esle going along?  What are your festival highlights? 

The D!

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