Tag Archives: Australia

‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville

The Secret RiverstarstarstarstarThe librarian where we meet for book club, described this as a very good read when she handed us our latest assignment and called it “a proper story.”

I did thoroughly enjoy this slice of Australian history because it didn’t try to be too epic nor did the author take sides in the conflict–she lets the reader decide and wonder what they would have done in the same situation. Though full of great literary themes, the story is focused primarily on one couple and their young children as they try to survive in a harsh and foreign land. This makes it simply readable as a story, but at the same time the reader cannot help but examine the choices that this couple make.

William Thornhill and his wife Sal travel to Australia from London on one of the early convict ships. Will is not a bad man, driven by impoverishment to make unsavoury choices. He escapes the gallows but ends up in another sort of prison and engages in another type of theft. Sal dreams of returning to London one day, but William falls in love with the land on the Hawkesbury River and this becomes his fatal flaw. It is a wild and lonely place except for the indigenous people who are living there already, but who are discounted as savages by those settling and ‘civilizing’ New South Wales. A settler’s dream becomes an Australian nightmare. It is a painful history familiar from so many colonial stories. Grenville does a beautiful job of quietly crafting the Aborigines’ voice and representing their loss.

Every one of the settlers in the book has chosen a different way of interaction with the indigenous people. Miscommunication and misunderstanding abound, but for some, a quiet “give and take” is what works best. In that regard it reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible, a novel offering several different approaches to missionary work in Africa embodied by various characters. Grenville’s great-great-great grandfather was a convict himself, sent from London to Australia in 1806. It was the desire to understand the history of her ancestors that motivated her to write these books.

The Secret River is part of a three book ‘Colonial Trilogy’.  The Lieutenant  and Sarah Thornhill being the other two. The Lieutenant was written after but is set before The Secret River and is an exploration of the first contacts between whites and blacks before the violence took over and when conversation was still possible. Sarah Thornhill is a loose sequel to the other two, taking up the story in a third generation that must deal with what history has created. I definitely will read the other two in the trilogy at some point. Grenville gives a masterful touch to a troubled tale–a proper story indeed. I know we will be having a great discussion at book club this month.  The Secret River has been adapted for stage and screen.

‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton

CloudstreetstarstarstarstarJust after I’d listened to a podcast of Australian author Tim Winton being interviewed by CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel of Writers and Company, and thinking I’d really like to read one of his books one day, a friend and fellow book lover sent Cloudstreet my way. Thanks Conny! I really loved this earthy and epic Australian classic. In the interview Winton says he often begins his novels by creating a place and then filling it with people. In this case, it is a big rambling house which in itself becomes like a character in the novel. The two couples who live in the house couldn’t be more different. One couple are hardworking God-fearing folks, and the other couple are licentious wastrels who depend on luck.

“Struggling to rebuild their lives after being touched by disaster, the Pickle family, who’ve inherited a big house called Cloudstreet in a suburb of Perth, take in the God-fearing Lambs as tenants. The Lambs have suffered their own catastrophes, and determined to survive, they open up a grocery on the ground floor. From 1944 to 1964, the shared experiences of the two overpopulated clans — running the gamut from drunkenness, adultery, and death to resurrection, marriage, and birth — bond them to each other and to the bustling, haunted house in ways no one could have anticipated.”

Cloudstreet is a fantastic reading experience that will stay with me for a long time (complete with interesting magical touches like an Aboriginal ghost and a talking pig). It is a family saga with characters that are unforgettable and the humour Winton uses to tell the story is no-nonsense and quintessentially Aussie. There are hilarious scenes but also tragedy and heartache in equal measure. The writing is so packed with good stuff that it is not a quick read and often huge reveals are conveyed in just a few words that make you go “wait, what just happened?” A lot of reviewers speak of rereading the book and making new discoveries each time. The novel is beautifully crafted, uniquely described, and worth a careful reading. A television miniseries adaptation of Cloudstreet came out in 2011. I found it fun to watch the trailer. Although I’ve never been in Perth, I think the setting would be recognizable to locals and even includes an historical appearance of the ‘Nedlands Monster’, a serial killer from the early 60’s.

Winton is a surfer, as many Australians are. He says writing is much like surfing, because much of it involves just waiting until the wave comes in and then being prepared to ride it out when it does. Winton is often called the “bard of Western Australia.” He recently put this piece of excellent writing into the Australian political scene regarding migrant boats, an issue much in the news lately for many parts of the world. He gave this passioned and compassionate plea on Palm Sunday:

Tim Winton’s Palm Sunday plea: Start the soul-searching Australia

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

The Slap has an interesting premise. A man slaps a child who is not his own at a barbecue.  The author then examines the repercussions of this event through the eyes of eight different people who were there. Believing that the author would really do something with this interesting set up and also because it was a book club assignment for me, I kept reading. Were it not for those two driving forces, I do not believe I would have finished it.

There is a lot of unnecessary crude language, explicit mature content, and racism in this book. Had these things been justified by exemplary literary style or had I been convinced that the people in the book would actually behave and talk this way, I would have tolerated those aspects of the book, but to me the story did not really take me anywhere or teach me anything important, nor did the author make me care much about the characters. Is this a realistic portrayal of Greeks in Australia and how do they feel about it? Nevertheless a story can be enjoyed for just being that –  a  story – and that is what those who love the book have said and they are right.

The book has achieved a tremendous following and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  There are many who love it, including two members of our book club. So it probably is just a matter of taste. What the author does do that is amazing, is take on a myriad of social issues all in the same story (teenage sexuality, abortion, Muslim conversion, swearing, racism, child rearing, same-sex orientation, breastfeeding, assault, child abuse, alcoholism, drugs, family , suicide, parenting, marriage, infidelity, multiculturalism) whew!,  making it for me, seem almost like a social caricature.

Wikipedia called it “a controversial and daring novel” which examines “identities and personal relationships in a multicultural society” and “taps into universal tensions and dilemmas around family life and child-rearing.” Incidentally, the act of slapping a child is not even illegal in Australia, making the book’s court case and charges,  as well as the initial premise, false from the beginning.