London in the 1790s was a wretched and poverty-ridden place where on every side there is naught but brick walls and chimneys, cobblestones and mouldering planks, surrounded by tanneries and glue factories, filling the air with their miasmas.
Amidst all this bleakness, young William Thornhill tries to carve out a niche to protect himself from starvation, well aware that there are scarce opportunities for advancement in the precarious service industries of the capital - the porters and needlewomen, chairmen, street hawkers, and watermen.
Luckily, William obtains an apprenticeship from a Mr. Middleton, working as a waterman on the fog-shrouded river Thames. It promises to be a good life, a sure reward for a hard man's labor and with the guarantee that with a trade behind him he can marry Middleton's daughter, Sal.
The promise of good times, however, unravels when when Middleton suddenly dies and William finds himself turning to petty thievery, stealing shipments of Brazil wood from barges on the Thames in order to make ends meet. Finally caught, the young apprentice is imprisoned in Newgate Gaol and "in the time between two heartbeats" is found guilty.
Rather than be hanged by the neck, William is granted a pardon, on condition of his being transported – under the supervision of his beloved wife - to the Eastern Part of New South Wales for the term of his natural life. But Sydney in 1806 is like nothing that William and Sal have ever seen before.
It is a sad, scrabbling place, half-formed, merely a container for those condemned by His Majesty's courts.
Forced to live in a bark hut high atop a hillside with no luxuries beyond the mud-caked walls and the floor of damp earth, William, Sal, and their growing children try to make the best of their situation far from the darkness and dirt of London in this strange place where the hot weather comes confusingly at Chistmas and where the twilit evenings become darkness sudden and absolute.
The years pass, and William works off his sentence, eventually obtaining his "ticket of leave, becoming an emancipist, a free man." Driven by a thought of the future that would not be like the past and the urge to have "our place," William is drawn to a particular stretch of the Hawksbury River just north of Sydney.
Although William has piercing hunger in his guts to own it – "to say mine in a way he had never been able to say mine of anything at all," Sal however, is less enthusiastic, preferring to harbor dreams of returning to her beloved London. To Sal, this land seems harsh and unlovely, nothing but a sentence to be endured.
But colonize the area they do, just like many of the other white settlers scattering themselves thoughout the valley, building homes and farming the land. Of course, there
are the inevitable clashes with the aborigines, these mysterious natives whom many of the colonists label "savages" and who appear and disappear, suddenly swallowed up by the bush.
In this unique, utterly compelling novel, author Kate Grenville describes the birth of a nation, a young country bristling with description and life. A criminal and an outsider in one world, Thornhill ends up forging a life for himself in this alien land
that eventually becomes a place of promise, "the blank page in which a man might write a new life."
Populated with characters at once complicated and fearful - and more often than not, cruel - The Secret River tells of the terrible tragedy that was the confrontation between Aborigine and white settler.
Yet the novel also offers a gripping account of a young country in turmoil, the ever-turning wheels of colonial expansion where once-convicted felons can become landowners, essentially defining their own form of gentry in this harsh new world.