Edinburgh International Festival preview: Kate Grenville on The Secret River

As the stage version of Kate Grenville’s epic novel The Secret River gets ready for its European premiere, she tells Joyce McMillan about the moment she knew she had to tackle the story

Sydney Theatre Company perform The Secret River PIC: Heidrun Löhr
Sydney Theatre Company perform The Secret River PIC: Heidrun Löhr

It was in the year 2000, during a historic walk for reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge, that Kate Grenville’s life as a writer changed for good. Born in Sydney in 1950, she was already the highly successful author of five novels, one of which, The Idea of Perfection, had just won the UK’s Orange Prize for fiction by women; and her fiction always touched on stories of how individual human beings make history, often by trying to free themselves from old expectations and stereotypes.

By the turn of the millennium, though, she was also increasingly drawn to the movement for reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians; and along with 250,000 others, on 28 May 2000 she joined what became the largest political demonstration in Australian history, walking across Sydney Harbour Bridge from north to south.

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Grenville knew that her own ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, had been an English convict, transported to New South Wales in 1805. She knew that he had “taken up land” near the Hawkesbury River, 45 miles north of Sydney; she knew that must have previously been the homeland of the aboriginal people of the area, known as the Dharug people. Yet somehow, the cause of reconciliation still seemed more like a political campaign than a profoundly personal matter; until Grenville neared the south end of the bridge, during that walk, and saw a group of aboriginal women standing watching, from a point near the place where the first transported convicts were landed more than two centuries ago. “As we passed,” says Grenville, “my eyes just met the eyes of one of those women; and we exchanged this long look – of connection, recognition, mutual acknowledgement.

“And suddenly, I just felt this jolt of awareness that this woman’s ancestors could have been the very people driven from their land by my great-great-great grandfather. They could have met him. And from that moment, I knew that I personally had unfinished business with this story. I had to find out what happened; so I began to research the family history, with a view to possibly writing a non-fiction book about it.”

As Grenville researched, though, what she mainly found – when it came to the aboriginal people – was silence. There was plenty of information about how Solomon Wiseman eventually won his pardon, built up his ferrying business, and founded a small town called Wiseman’s Ferry; but about the aboriginals, and what she increasingly knew must have been their terrible fate, almost nothing. In the end, she realised that in order to reach the truth of what had happened, she would have to take to fiction; and the result was her acclaimed 2005 novel The Secret River, now transformed by Sydney Theatre Company into an award-winning stage show, which will receive its European premiere at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

The central character of the novel, William Thornhill, is a fictional version of Solomon Wiseman, a convict arriving in New South Wales in 1806 with his wife Sal; but for Grenville, this was a very different experience from writing her other fictional works. “It was incredibly painful and confronting,” says Grenville, “because it came straight out of this awareness that I personally am part of this great wave displacement and dispossession on which modern Australia was founded. And right from the start, ordinary readers just seemed to love this book; many of them said they were grateful that this slice of our past had finally been told in such an accessible form. Aboriginal people were incredibly supportive – it was very moving.

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“There were historians who objected to the use of fiction to tell the story; but I felt that behind some of the technical objections, there was a feeling that some people would rather it wasn’t told at all. In Australia, many of us have a “black armband” view of history, which involves mourning for what happened in our past; but we also have what we call “white blindfold” – the wish of some non-indigenous Australians to pretend that it simply didn’t happen.”

In the years since it was published, The Secret River has become a global bestseller, and in 2015 it was broadcast as a two-part Australian TV mini-series, which Grenville describes as “a pretty straight-up-and-down retelling of the story, that didn’t flinch from the terrible violence at the end.” But when it came to the theatre version – first seen in Sydney six years ago – Grenville was clear from the start that it would be very different from what she had written.

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“As soon as I knew the team that were going to be working on it, I said, look, for heaven’s sake, don’t do a ‘faithful adaptation,’” she says. “I said that they should just write me a good play, based on the story; and they did. Neil Armfield, the director, is something of a legend in Australia; Andrew Bovell is a great playwright and screenwriter, and I also knew that the indigenous director and choreographer Stephen Page would be involved, so that that voice would be there. They have recreated the story, and added theatrical perspective to it, in a way I simply couldn’t have done.”

Sadly, Grenville won’t be in Edinburgh to see the play; she is completing another novel this summer, about what she calls “a character not unlike myself.” She has, however, already built The Secret River’s success with other books – a prequel to William Thornhill’s story, called The Lieutenant, and a sequel, Sarah Thornhill, about the life of Thornhill’s daughter; and she is hoping soon to add a fourth book to what is already known as her “colonial trilogy.”

She is increasingly clear, too, that the tale she began to tell in The Secret River is not just an Australian story. Grenville has increasingly come to see it as part of the whole story of human civilisation and change, as powerful nations reach out to claim, for their own, lands which had previously been inhabited by indigenous peoples.

“What is striking about the response to The Secret River is that people don’t just recognise what happened; they understand why it happened so well that they often say they don’t want to read to the end, because they get the terrible logic of it, and they know how it must finish. That story, of one group of humans forcibly dispossessing another, is a universal one, as well as a profound one for my country. So yes, I would have liked to see how audiences in Scotland and England respond to it, because in a very important sense this story of colonisation is their story too. But mostly, I just feel that I was incredibly lucky to find myself telling this story at exactly the right moment, when it resonated around the world in such a remarkable way.”

The Secret River, King’s Theatre, 2-4 and 6-11 August, 0131-473 2000/www.eif.co.uk