In 1806, William Thornhill is an impoverished boatman struggling to feed his family. After being caught stealing wood, he is sentenced to be transported to the penal colony of New South Wales. His wife, Sal, accompanies him, along with their first child; when they make land in the colony, her husband becomes her slave.
The two of them and their growing family eke out an existence in this strange new land, their eyes always on the eventual goal of returning home to England. Thornhill eventually earns his pardon, and discovers a stretch of land along the Hawkesbury River, which he becomes determined to settle.
As any Australian should know, the colonists and convicts were not the first people to settle this area, and Thornhill and his family become aware of the indigenous people (or “savages”, or simply the “blacks” as the colonists call them). The colonists are erecting fences and clearing fields on lands the Aboriginal people have roamed through and lived with for generations, and it is inevitable that some conflict will occur.
This novel conveys the horrific events of that conflict in brutal honesty, and juxtaposes it beautifully against the absolute poverty that drove men like Thornhill to thieve (often small amounts) in an effort to try to feed their families.
The ending of the book feels a little rushed and almost unbelievable after the events that preceded it (trying to avoid spoilers here, though one wonders how much you can actively spoil something based on historical events) – but the horrific truth is that it absolutely reflects reality. A wealthy nation was founded, in part, on blood and secrets and brutality, and Grenville does not shy away from that. I can only imagine how difficult parts of this book must have been for Grenville to write, since she drew on her own family history as inspiration.