William Thornhill, an illiterate Thames bargeman and man of quick temper but deep feelings, steals a load of timber and is transported to New South Wales in 1806. Like many of the convicts, he’s pardoned within a few years and settles on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.

Perhaps the Governor grants him the land of perhaps he just takes it – the Hawkesbury is at the extreme edge of settlement at that time and normal rules don’t apply. However he gets the land, it’s prime riverfront acreage. It looks certain to make him rich.

There’s just one problem with that land; it’s already owned. It’s been part of the territory of the Darug people for perhaps 40 thousand years. They haven’t left fences or roads or houses, but they live on that land and use it, just as surely as Thornhill’s planning to do.

This Orange Prize winner was enjoyed by everyone in our club and it generated a great discussion on the trials and tragedies of the first settlers alongside the caution and bewilderment of Australia’s first people.

Grenville’s skill at telling this story’s two sides without bias to either was one of the first comments. The clash of cultures was clearly stated but not overly dramatized or exaggerated. It was a simple matter of two groups coming together in complete ignorance of each other. This we felt would have happened all over the colony at the time and it left the reader with an understanding of what went wrong in those early days.

The vivid description of the Hawkesbury area helped place the reader within the story, and the author’s research seemed evident throughout the book. Something we all appreciated.

A few of our members found themselves impatient with the first section and felt it took Thornhill too long to get to the colony. But the majority felt the intro was necessary for the whole story to have some impact. There then followed a discussion on displaced people and their assimilation. As it turned out … a timely topic!

We managed to dig up much for discussion in this book. We then moved on to dissecting Thornhill and his wife Sal’s relationship. We found it on the whole very believable and in character with what many couples would have experienced in such circumstances. There were no frills or romanticing. Just the hard yakka needed to get by.

Certainly a worthwhile book by our standards and it was agreed that Grenville’s next novel The Lieutenant would no doubt be worth a read.


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