As one who lived in Australia for nearly five years, before returning to live in England, I found this novel by Australian author Kate Grenville totally immersive.
Kate Grenville takes her main protagonist William Thornhill from his life as a Thames waterman in the late 1700s out to New South Wales on a convict transport, and brings him to the piece of land he has dreamed of owning on the Hawkesbury River. I found myself visualising and experiencing his life and daily environment as if I was there with him. I could imagine the grandeur of the wild scenery at Thornhill’s Point, and sense it in every way. Yet I felt a deep sorrow for the indigenous Australians – the aboriginal people – and for the tragic failures of understanding and communication between them and the European settlers.
I could empathise, too, with how Will’s wife Sal felt, longing to ‘go home’ to London, and living every day in the hope of returning; and I could also feel the profound dilemma for Will. He knows that if he returns to his former environment by the Thames he will be back among people who consider him the lowest of the low, a felon, cutting him off forever from fulfilling his dreams.
Powering along through this story is the sublime evocation of the New South Wales climate, atmosphere and scenery along the Hawkesbury River, and the feeling of majesty and beauty from the unyielding wilderness, upon which the white settlers will need, in some way to impose their own will, their needs and demands.
Modern Australia has come a long way in acknowledging that dreadful betrayal of the birthright of the indigenous peoples, in the assumption of the early settlers that the land was unoccupied and there for the taking. I have been very conscious of the efforts made in the direction of repentance and reconciliation in all my most recent visits to Queensland and New South Wales. And yet we cannot read this book, and others like it, on this topic, without feeling again the terrible clash of cultures between the so-called ‘civilisation’ that the Europeans brought with them, and the values of the First Nation peoples.