A sequel to the prize-winning bestseller “The Secret River”, this can be read as a stand alone novel. Sarah Thornhill is a bright, shrewd and spirited girl, but illiterate since no one sees any need for a girl to be able to read and write in C19 rural New South Wales. Her father is an emancipist, a euphemism in this case for a freed convict, who has worked hard and gained wealth and status through land, although at what price remains a guilty secret which would blight his descendants’ conscience and peace of mind once revealed. The widow of a respectable soldier, Sarah’s step-mother is dedicated to drumming genteel ways into her husband and the children she has taken on. All hell breaks loose when Sarah’s intention of marrying Jack Langland becomes known. Although the son of a well-off neighbour, he is unacceptable as a husband because his mother was a native girl, exploited at a time when few European women were available.
Using Sarah as a narrator, Kate Grenville provides a vivid visual portrayal of the Australian outback as it was first settled by Europeans, up to the sharp range of mountains marking “the Limit of Location”. Daily life was underlain by the tensions, injustice and casual brutality which resulted from the contact between white men in search of land assumed to be free for the taking, and aborigines with attitudes and customs which incomers discounted or despised, their innate prejudice for the most part blinding them to the possible interest or value of anything that was simply different.
The author spins a good yarn, dry wit mixed with poignancy, but the climax of the tale seems too implausible in some respects, contrived to serve a particular purpose and make points which the reader may find it hard to accept. Yet on reflection, Kate Grenville has succeeded in producing some thought-provoking insights: the children of settlers may never feel that they truly belong to any country; those who have profited unwittingly from their parents’ exploitation of a native population may be driven to extreme measures to assuage their guilt. Charitable gifts are insufficient – the only way fully to understand and empathise with another culture is to experience it firsthand, in the process learning how it feels to be alien in one’s own.
Even a fit forty-year-old like Cameron Bright cannot survive long in the Australian outback without water. So why was his dehydrated body found nine kilometres from his abandoned car, well-stocked with food and water? And why should he choose a painful death at a site which in his youth he had made the subject of a prize-winning painting: the grave of the stockman who had met a similar fate in the wilderness? Why should a well-liked family man with two young daughters and a successful business, with so much to live for, commit suicide? His brother Nathan was much more likely to have done so, being more obviously “ a lost man” struggling with an unprofitable landholding and debts accumulated from an acrimonious divorce.
This gripping psychological drama gradually reveals the truth about Cameron’s death, together with reasons for the intense hostility towards Nathan in the tight-knit, inward-looking local community and the complex way in which the three Bright brothers, Cameron, Nathan and their much younger brother Bub have been damaged by their father’s brutality, and also their mother’s inability to protect them.
Jane Harris puts her past experience as a journalist to good effect, in handling an intriguing plot, developing rounded characters, all flawed yet mostly commanding sympathy, in the fascinating setting of the outback which she appears to know well, yet I believe in fact researched for the purpose of this book. So we learn how people have adapted to living in a harsh, even dangerous environment, to which they have become attached. They must leave a note of their whereabouts every time they travel any distance from home, and failure to comply with certain conventions of mutual support is regarded as akin to a criminal offence. Even the system of home schooling, learning on line with all its potential shortcomings for young, not particularly motivated children with hard-pressed parents, is given a mention.
My only mild criticism of this novel is that, after the unflinching realism of much of the book, the ending seems a little too suddenly bland and “happy ever after feel-good”, which many readers will of course prefer to a more ambiguous “literary” conclusion.
Having found all the author’s first three novels page turners with the potential to be made into films, this seems to me to be the best.