With only one door left on an advent calendar, usually I'd be ripping it open without pause, but the whole process of choosing just 24 books for the Aussie Authors Advent has been incredibly difficult, and never more so than today. Such a wealth of talent. Such an impossible choice.
In the end, the only thing to do was to go back to my old favourites. It could just as easily have been Marcus Zuzak's 'The Book Thief', or 'Jasper Jones' by Craig Silvey or ... or ... or...
I chose 'The Secret River' by Kate Grenville, not only for the wonderful and terrific story which unfolds, but for the richness of the language she employs and her keen and evocative detail. It is part of trilogy, which includes 'The Lieutenant' and 'Sarah Thornhill'. It has won the following awards:
Winner of the Commonwealth Prize for Literature Winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction (the NSW Premier's Prize) Winner of the Community Relations Commission Prize Winner of the Booksellers' Choice Award Winner of the Fellowship of Australian Writers Prize and Winner of the Publishing Industry Book of the Year Award Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize Longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize
This synopsis of 'The Secret River' is taken from her website:
William Thornhill, an illiterate Thames bargeman and a 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 or 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 forty 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.
They aren't going to hand over their land without a fight. Spears may be primitive weapons, but settlers know that they can kill a man as surely as a ball of lead from a musket.
As he realises all this, Thornhill faces an impossible choice.
Some of his neighbours – Smasher Sullivan, Sagitty Birtles – regard the Darug as hardly human, savages with as little right to land as a dog. When the Darug object to being driven off, those settlers have no compunction in shooting or poisoning them.
Other neighbours make a different choice, and find ways to co-exist with the Darug. Blackwood has made a family among them. Mrs Herring "gives them when they ask".
Hostility between blacks and whites gradually escalates. Finally a group of settlers decides to go out and "settle" the Darug once and for all. Will Thornhill join them?
The decision he makes is with him for the rest of his life.
The Secret River plunges the reader into the experience of frontier life. What was it like – moment to moment, day by day – to have been in that situation? It doesn't judge any of the characters or their actions, only invites the reader to ask the question, "What might I have done in that situation?'
I would have floundered for sure. Making a simple decision such as which books to choose for the Aussie Authors Advent was challenging enough. I could just as easily have chosen one of her books about the writing process and often find myself turning to those in my own moments of writing crises. I also spend hours poring over her website, reading her 'short pieces' on subjects such as 'A Short History of Coal' and 'Artists and Climate Change'. Internationally acclaimed, she is one of Australia's best-loved authors, and undoubtedly one of mine.
Kate Grenville's writing is both a luxury, a compass and a comfort.