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October 5, 2007

The Search for the Secret River by Kate Grenville

Australian writer Kate Grenville was sure The Secret River was going to be nonfiction. The story of her great-great-great Solomon Wiseman, sentenced to death for stealing in 19th century England, but sent to Australia instead. Though was she going to be entirely faithful to the facts, or would memoir creep in? Eventually Grenville would understand that answering such questions wasn’t going to be up to her, and that in order for her story to be invested with life, it would have to become a novel. When names are changed, history is freed, and suddenly the story grows wings, though this winged-creature is very different from what Grenville started with, which, with books, it seems, is often the way.

There was a memoir in all of this after all, though, with Grenville’s new book The Search for the Secret River. Though I haven’t read The Secret River I was attracted to The Search for… by promises of an exploration of the lines between fact and fiction, thoughts on writing by one seasoned in the art (who had written writing guides previously), and by a consideration of the implications of history. Grenville didn’t disappoint, and I do imagine that for fans of the novel, The Search for the Secret River will provide rich insight into its creation, a sort of fly-on-the-wall perspective, which is rare with authors and books.

I approached this book foremost as a writer, and found it valuable in this respective. The deftness with which Grenville slips her wisdom into the narrative, avoiding didacticism and alienation of those to whom such advice might not be applicable. Her “mantras”: Never have a blank page one; Don’t wait for the mood. “Never mind. Fix it up later”. Words which might ring emptily, were it not for their contexts. She deals with practical matters of reimagining dialogue, investing characters with life, how to write “the other”.

Divided into three parts, the first deals with her research into her family background, her understanding of the facts of her ancestors as colonials, the impossibility of uncovering history at all, let alone bringing it back to life. How “history” can take us so far in the wrong direction, and how often the answers are always in places we’d least expect them, and found usually by chance. The second part of the book is a fascinating recounting of how nonfiction turned into a novel after all, and the final third considers the practical matters of this process.

This was a most enjoyable memoir, the sort of narrative that only a novelist could write. And I use the term “narrative” quite deliberately, for this what Grenville manages to create, out of her fact, her fiction, and so many moments of her own confusion. She’s written another story, no more or less powerful for the truth at its core, but rather for the strength of its parts and construction alike.

2 thoughts on “The Search for the Secret River by Kate Grenville”

  1. rona says:

    Kerry, it’s about time I told you how much I’m enjoying your haven of reason and celebration in the blogosphere. (And I’d say this even if you hadn’t reviewed my book!) To write thoughtfully about books is to write about life, and that’s why I like to come here even though I never seem to read anywhere near as much as I think I will. My only complaint is actually a compliment of sorts: unless I’m missing something, you don’t have a search function. Too bad, because I sometimes wonder what you’ve written about books I’ve recently discovered, and that strike me as the kind of book you read.

  2. Kerry says:

    Thanks so much! I’ve sent you an email through your site, but in case you don’t receive it for some reason, know how much I appreciate your compliments. And that you can use the “search” function located at the top lefthand corner of my page (though unfortunately I’ve only been tracking serious bookishness for a year or so).

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