Skip to main content

Kate Grenville – The Secret River

Kate Grenville got more than she bargained for when she set out to write a history book about her great-great-great grand-father, Solomon Wiseman. The idea had come about after the Australian novelist joined the 2000 Reconciliation Walk cross Sydney Harbour. With more than 250,000 people taking part, the walk was a major statement in acknowledgement of Australia’s colonial past and its treatment of the country’s indigenous Aboriginal community, as well as present day disenfranchisement. In what was the largest political demonstration Australia had seen, for Grenville, it was something of a wake-up call.

The book that eventually resulted, The Secret River, became, not a biography of her ancestor, but a fictional epic about the fractious relationship between English settlers and existing Aborigine society, who have their land robbed while those who took it grow wealthy on the back of their presumptuousness. This is seen through the eyes of a man called William Thornhill, whose origins are similar to Grenville’s ancestor.

“My great-great-great grand-father was a convict,” says Grenville, as Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of her book for Sydney Theatre Company arrives at Edinburgh International Festival this week. “He stole wood and was transported from England to Australia, where he ‘took up land’, as it was described. That phrase stuck in my mind, and in 2000 there was this big moment to acknowledge our part in how the Aboriginal community were treated.

“When I took part in the march, I met this Aborigine woman, and she and I exchanged a look. It was a moment of acknowledgement about what happened, and I knew my great-great-great grand-father had been there, and she knew her own ancestors had been there, and I knew that they would have been the people driven from their land by my great-great-great grand-father. I realised as well that rather than saying the settlers ‘took up land’, that it was better and more accurate to say that they ‘took land.”

When she wrote The Secret River over five years prior to its publication in 2005, Grenville was aware that she was putting her head above the parapet in terms of fictionalising a still emotionally charged part of her country’s history. The critical and public response to the book, however, suggested she had hit a nerve, and that there was a desire from both white and indigenous Australians to unearth the country’s hidden history. Published in the UK by Edinburgh’s Canongate imprint, Grenville’s novel went on to win numerous awards, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The Sydney Theatre Company first produced Bovell’s stage version in 2013, and is performed in the Aboriginal Dharug language as well as English, with the story narrated by an indigenous guide.

“The play does something I didn’t do,’ says Grenville. “The book is seen solely through the main character’s eyes, but the play does something more daring, and looks at things from both sides, from both the Aborigine characters and the settler characters. So it’s about two families, one who’ve lived there for forty or fifty years, the other who has just arrived, and they have no language in common. When the settler characters realise the Aborigine characters are speaking in a language they don’t understand, it’s a remarkable piece of theatre.”

Grenville was more cautious in her approach when writing her novel.

“There were places I felt I couldn’t go,” she says. “To step into the Aborigine world would risk appropriating their culture, and I didn’t want to do that. In terms of the book, there was a huge generosity from the Aborigine community. They’ve suffered huge losses, and to be frank those losses have come because we’ve taken things off them, but the book says to look at what happened, which came about because of people telling lies. In terms of the play, I have to pay tribute to the Aboriginal actors, who are being asked to perform something that was hugely traumatic in terms of what happened to their people.”

Since The Secret River was published, Grenville has written two other novels looking at colonialism in Australia. The first, The Lieutenant, published in 2008, is set thirty years before The Secret River, while Sarah Thornhill, dating from 2011, is a more explicit sequel, focusing on William Thornhill’s youngest daughter.

“I’ve always hated historical fiction,” Grenville says. “so when I found myself writing a historical book I wasn’t sure about it. But I write books that are set in the past, and I don’t know where fact and fiction ends.”

Grenville also wrote a non-fiction follow-up to The Secret River. While not the one she originally intended, Searching for the Secret River nevertheless looks into her methodology in her original research for her novel. There has also been an Australian television adaptation of The Secret River, which shows just how much Grenville’s book has impinged on her country’s national consciousness.

“It’s very hard to judge what effect the book has or hasn’t had,” she says, “but I was told the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was talking about Aboriginal issues and mentioned the book. I didn’t vote for him, so I have mixed feelings about that, but it seems as well to have gone beyond the country itself. I wrote the book at a particular time, and I think it captured something about that time. A lot of things that came out of looking into my family history opened up something that went beyond that.

“There are no easy answers about seeing people’s history decimated over some piece of land. The answer is, rather than lying, tell the truth about it. One thing you can do to try and resolve things is to look at what happened, because as long as you’re telling lies about it, you’re never going to get anywhere.”

The Secret River, Edinburgh International Festival @ King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, preview August 2, 7.30-10.20pm, August 3-10 (not August 5), 7.30-10.20pm, August 3, 8, 10, 11, 1.30-4.20pm.

The Herald, August 2nd 2019


ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Losing Touch With My Mind - Psychedelia in Britain 1986-1990

DISC 1 1. THE STONE ROSES   -  Don’t Stop 2. SPACEMEN 3   -  Losing Touch With My Mind (Demo) 3. THE MODERN ART   -  Mind Train 4. 14 ICED BEARS   -  Mother Sleep 5. RED CHAIR FADEAWAY  -  Myra 6. BIFF BANG POW!   -  Five Minutes In The Life Of Greenwood Goulding 7. THE STAIRS  -  I Remember A Day 8. THE PRISONERS  -  In From The Cold 9. THE TELESCOPES   -  Everso 10. THE SEERS   -  Psych Out 11. MAGIC MUSHROOM BAND  -  You Can Be My L-S-D 12. THE HONEY SMUGGLERS  - Smokey Ice-Cream 13. THE MOONFLOWERS  -  We Dig Your Earth 14. THE SUGAR BATTLE   -  Colliding Minds 15. GOL GAPPAS   -  Albert Parker 16. PAUL ROLAND  -  In The Opium Den 17. THE THANES  -  Days Go Slowly By 18. THEE HYPNOTICS   -  Justice In Freedom (12" Version) 1. THE STONE ROSES    Don’t Stop ( Silvertone   ORE   1989) The trip didn’t quite start here for what sounds like Waterfall played backwards on The Stone Roses’ era-defining eponymous debut album, but it sounds

Big Gold Dreams – A Story of Scottish Independent Music 1977-1989

Disc 1 1. THE REZILLOS (My Baby Does) Good Sculptures (12/77)  2. THE EXILE Hooked On You (8/77) 3. DRIVE Jerkin’ (8/77) 4. VALVES Robot Love (9/77) 5. P.V.C. 2 Put You In The Picture (10/77) 6. JOHNNY & THE SELF ABUSERS Dead Vandals (11/77) 7. BEE BEE CEE You Gotta Know Girl (11/77) 8. SUBS Gimme Your Heart (2/78) 9. SKIDS Reasons (No Bad NB 1, 4/78) 10. FINGERPRINTZ Dancing With Myself (1/79)  11. THE ZIPS Take Me Down (4/79) 12. ANOTHER PRETTY FACE All The Boys Love Carrie (5/79)  13. VISITORS Electric Heat (5/79) 14. JOLT See Saw (6/79) 15. SIMPLE MINDS Chelsea Girl (6/79) 16. SHAKE Culture Shock (7/79) 17. HEADBOYS The Shape Of Things To Come (7/79) 18. FIRE EXIT Time Wall (8/79) 19. FREEZE Paranoia (9/79) 20. FAKES Sylvia Clarke (9/79) 21. TPI She’s Too Clever For Me (10/79) 22. FUN 4 Singing In The Showers (11/79) 23. FLOWERS Confessions (12/79) 24. TV21 Playing With Fire (4/80) 25. ALEX FERGUSSON Stay With Me Tonight (1980) 1. THE REZILL

Edinburgh Rocks – The Capital's Music Scene in the 1950s and Early 1960s

Edinburgh has always been a vintage city. Yet, for youngsters growing up in the shadow of World War Two as well as a pervading air of tight-lipped Calvinism, they were dreich times indeed. The founding of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 and the subsequent Fringe it spawned may have livened up the city for a couple of weeks in August as long as you were fans of theatre, opera and classical music, but the pubs still shut early, and on Sundays weren't open at all. But Edinburgh too has always had a flipside beyond such official channels, and, in a twitch-hipped expression of the sort of cultural duality Robert Louis Stevenson recognised in his novel, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a vibrant dance-hall scene grew up across the city. Audiences flocked to emporiums such as the Cavendish in Tollcross, the Eldorado in Leith, The Plaza in Morningside and, most glamorous of all due to its revolving stage, the Palais in Fountainbridge. Here the likes of Joe Loss and Ted Heath broug