The Secret River
Text Publishing, $45 pb, 354 pp, 1920885757
Kate Grenville is a brave woman. For some years now, the representation of Aboriginal people by white writers has been hedged about by a thicket of postcolonial anxieties, profoundly problematic and important but too often manifested as hostile, holier-than-thou critique, indulging, at its most inept, in wilfully skewed readings of the fiction in order to fit the thesis. As if that were not enough, there has also been a bit of a backlash over the last year or two against the writing of any kind of historical fiction, on the grounds that contemporary Australia is quite awful enough to be going on with, and badly needs to be addressed by its artists.
Grenville, aware that one way of confronting the present is to interrogate the past, has forged ahead undaunted with a novel that tells a story of the convict system, Australian contact history, and the depredations of white settlement. She will no doubt be branded a black-armband novelist by one side and a cultural appropriator by the other. And in presenting the emotional complexities and moral dilemmas of all the various players, she will get into trouble with almost everybody. But readers with no predetermined case to prove and no ego investment in any particular critical position will take this novel as it comes and will make up their own minds about it.