Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable: The Characters

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

With which character did you feel more empathy or sympathy: William or Sal?

Did that feeling change during the course of the story?

I thought the author was even-handed in her portrayal of the strengths and weaknesses of both William and Sal. Each had a certain measure of selfishness but also moments of compromise (how else can a marriage be sustained?). Sal's resilience and inventiveness in dealing with the poverty of her life as a young married woman in England, the squalor of their initial accommodations in Sydney and starting life on the river were remarkable. I kept trying to see myself in the same situations. For Sal's sake I was insulted by William's continued surprise at his wife's farsightedness.

Both William and Sal were changed by their experience in this foreign land. One of the final incidents (p. 331) is quite telling. Sal reminds William "I thought you was wonderful when I was a little thing...Because you spit such a long way!" And he replies: "I ain't lost the art, Sal,...Only in this dry place a man needs all his spit for himself." And that, to me, sums up William: it became all about himself. And as usually happens, that does not make for a truly happy life.

This is the second in a series of 4 blogs in this Roundtable. You can find the others on Nov. 2, Nov 4 and Nov. 5.


  1. I was pulled along with tension and dread toward the tragic confrontation in this very interesting tale. As others have stated, it was revealing to read a historical fiction book about what the convict/settlers of Australia possibly experienced. I found William to be a remarkably stubborn obsessed man who led his family into this mess, but the author did a good job of creating a strong sense of his grinding poverty and hopelessness in England to account for his motivation. Sal seemed an inventive and determined mother and settler but the growing secrets between the two and her willingness to ignor the moral issues taking place contributed to their difficulties. William lost his moral compass there, and found that "things" did not make him happy. A cautionary tale, there.
    How did you react to the conclusion of this book? I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief when the family settled there permanently, ignoring the tragedy that decimated their area. Living there in wealth that did not take into account the conditions around their home seemed familiar to me. The description of attempts to grow trees and build an English mansion not suited to the area reminded me of our contemporary pattern of watering lawns and golf courses in the desert!
    A really memorable film, Rabbit-Proof Fence is well worth seeing or revisiting regarding the treatment of aboriginal people. I welcome your book suggestions on this topic for further exploration of this important part of history.

  2. William and Sal, whose closeness has helped them endure so much, are separated in the end by what they can't say to each other. I loved ths: "...it seemed there was no way to speak into that silent place. Their lives had slowly grown around it, the way the roots of a river-fig grew around a rock."