Recently I asked for book recommendations and committed to reading 20 books that were suggested for me by other bloggers and commenters. You can see the full list here. I started with The Secret River by Kate Grenville, recommended for me by Lucinda. It was the first of my library holds to arrive!
*unavoidable Spoiler Alert due to theme of book*
The Secret River was an ominous read. Not only did I fear for the characters, but for their country and its future. Throughout the whole book, I was filled with a sense of dread about what was to come. William lives in direst poverty in London near the turn of the 19th century. He rows clients and shipments of goods across the Thames. Good fortune arrives in an apprenticeship and a marriage to the business owner’s daughter. He is caught stealing timber and expects to die like other thieves, but his sentence is commuted to life in Australia. He is released into the care of his new wife and off they go. They realize they could make a living as small-time merchants in the burgeoning Sydney area, but instead, William becomes obsessed with owning and cultivating land.
Like all colonists, William and the other settlers refuse to acknowledge that the lots they claim are part of the ancestral homeland of the original Australians. The First People are dismissed as savages who don’t know how to build permanent shelter, cultivate crops, raise livestock, or “properly” engage in trade. At first they are treated as pests to be moved along, but when confrontations increase, William agrees that a lasting “solution” must be found.
As the story unfolds, we can’t help but sympathize with William and Sally and want them to prosper. We learn that other settlers treat the nearby inhabitants much worse, so William is not so bad, right? At first Sally, and later William, increasingly see the parallels between their lives and the locals’, but land-lust and dreams of wealth and power win out.
I found it chilling that the author chose to tell the whole story without judgment. It is based on research into her own family history, and other primary sources. Kate Grenville neither hails or condemns William’s actions. In effect, she simply says, “This is the way it was.” Readers can draw their own conclusions. Some will think, “To the victor the spoils.” Wars are won and lost and each side must accept the consequences. Others will think that William was simply a person of his times with the values of that era and therefore he can’t be judged by modern standards. Others like me will be shocked that the author’s only statement is apparently, “It happened and here we are now.” A reader concerned with social justice will realize the power in letting the actions stand in silence.
This book affected me greatly because Australia and Canada have the same colonial history and the same track record of exterminating First Nations people. Yet our Canadian guilt in having done so would not allow a book like this to be written here. A Canadian author would have written it from a First Nations point of view, or from the viewpoint of character who didn’t agree or participate in the genocide. The perspective that “This is how it was” wouldn’t be acceptable. I commend this book as history education and as a discussion starter among reasonable people. Thank you, Lucinda, for suggesting this thought-provoking and enraging book.
On to my next recommended read, Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell. What a contrast! This is a satire set in pre-WW2 London. We are immediately told that the narrator, Gordon, refuses to buy into capitalism. He has turned down job success in favour of a hand-to-mouth existence as a book store clerk and would-be poet. He continuously feels wretched due to having no money for food, cigarettes, treating his friends or going on dates. Yet he will do nothing to change this and become bourgeois. We know all this within a few pages. It was strange to read a book in which the premise and the “moral” are stated so soon and often, and they never change. Whenever you think things can’t get any worse, they do. I was reminded of Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat” and similarly gloomy Russian literature, which I love.
Thrift Deluxe suggested this book because she likes a “very English, miserable” read 🙂 It was actually a funny book and I was alternately amused and annoyed by Gordon Comstock. It raised some excellent points about to what extent we will stand for our principles. How far is too far? What if it has serious negative effects on others? If we cave in and compromise, are we lesser beings for it, or just “being realistic” or being human? Over all, I like books in which the key character is not necessarily likeable, admirable or trustworthy. Unless they are William Thornhill. Ha ha!
Aspidistra was also noteworthy because it really brought home the effects of grinding poverty on productivity, creativity and clear thinking. Gordon’s whole outlook on life changed every time he had a meal or a cigarette or a kind word from a publisher.
PS, This is an aspidistra, or “cast iron plant,” which Gordon Comstock finds in all the dreary places in which he lives and works, and it serves as a symbol of drab perseverance:
I am off to a great start. I could not have begun with any two books less alike, but I pored over both because they raised so many questions about how to live and how to get along in society.
If you have read either of these titles, I would love to hear what you thought of them (or what they made you think of).
I am now reading Riddley Walker, a sort of extended post-apocalyptic folk tale told in a made-up version of English as spoken by the characters. It is fascinating and challenging!
I hope you make some time to read in December!