Reading [b:The Secret River|347698|The Secret River|Kate Grenville|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1328849791s/347698.jpg|1374275] earlier this year was a profoundly moving experience, as was seeing the superb theatrical adaptation of the novel produced by the Sydney Theatre Company*. Together, the novel and the play spoke to me spoke to me about the colonial experience in New South Wales in a way that all of my other reading on this subject has failed to do. It personalised the dilemmas faced by the new arrivals and the conflict between them and the indigenous people of the country. It made those dilemmas and that conflict real in an emotional, not just in an intellectual sense. That emotional impact has remained with me over the months, fed and revitalised by reading the other novels of what has become Grenville's trilogy about the colonial experience, [b:The Lieutenant|4285471|The Lieutenant|Kate Grenville|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347994401s/4285471.jpg|4866916] and, over the past few days, [b:Sarah Thornhill|12338846|Sarah Thornhill |Kate Grenville|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1312886364s/12338846.jpg|17318055].
Until I noticed that my GR friend Gaeta was reading this book, I didn't know it existed. How grateful I am to have come across it. The theme of the work is there in the title. Grenville, inspired by family stories about her ancestor Solomon Wiseman - whose name is immortalised in Sydney geography by the settlement of Wiseman's Ferry on the Hawkesbury River - decides to write a biography of the convict turned wealthy landowner. She researches his story in London and in Australia and spends five years writing and re-writing what becomes not a biography, but a novel, and not a novel about her ancestor, but a novel centred on a character inspired by him and about the cultural misunderstanding which contributed to the difficult relationship between white settlers in the colony and the local indigenous people.
Grenville's writing method - the research, the re-imagining, the writing, the revision - is interesting in and of itself and would be, I imagine, of particular interest to other writers. However, that's not what captivated me about this work. What moved me at times to tears, was the recognition and memory of shared experiences. When Grenville describes the Reconcilation Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in May 2000, I was taken back to that day, because I was one of the 300,000 people who participated. When Grenville described standing next to the Thames realising that this was the place where Solomon Wiseman had been arrested, I remembered touching a headstone in a cemetery in a churchyard in Cornwall, knowing that this was where generations of my ancestors were buried. When Grenville described looking at Sydney Harbour, imagining what it was like when the ship on which Wiseman arrived in the colony, I remembered having done exactly the same thing, as I imagined the arrival of my ancestors. While I found her journey as a novelist very interesting, it was her struggle to find meaning, connection and belonging with which I most identified.
This is quick to read and highly recommended to anyone who loves The Secret River, who is interested in the process of researching and writing a novel or who has tried to make sense of family history. Thank you, Gaeta, for leading me to it.
*Excerpts from the play and interviews with playwright Andrew Bovell, director Neil Armfield and cast member Ursula Yovich can be seen here.