silentriver.jpg

This was my libraries December/January reading group selection.  It was well received, and I think rightly so.  Be prepared for a generally good read rather than a work of great literature.

After reading the dedication (to the aboriginal people) one is somewhat prepared for the subject matter, which perhaps reflects the zeitgeist of belated apology from Australians to the peoples native to their land.  This novel examines the historical background to that and I think does so effectively, by and large.  I was particularly engaged by the early parts of the book detailing life in London.  This prompted me to wonder, given that the author is Australian, if it is possible that contrary to the populist advice to "write of what you know" then in fact an author with any skill and prepared to put in the research can in fact write more engagingly of far away places and times that they in fact cannot know, because they have to engage with it as the reader does and take nothing for granted?  Then again it is equally possible that because I know London and do not know Austrlia it was more engaging to me.

Having said that I was equally struck by the fluidity and insight in the descriptions of Aboriginal people and culture.  Much was made of the way they would blend into the landscape and their skills with a spear or other survival skills.  If there is a sub-plot or theme in the book it is undoubtedly people and land and their relationship to it.  This is a central drive for the lead character in his aspirations and survival as a convict reprieved from hanging and deported.  His wife is well drawn and their relationship is interesting in the circumstances, though I found the frequency of their lovemakign stretched my credibility, then again perhaps the best marriages can work that way?

There was one niggling detail that I could not get, where the local aboriginals are said to have carved a depiction of the ship in a rock outcrop - this is clearly described and unlike other loose ends it is left with no further reference, other than that he chooses the spot to build his house over this - but in so doing only the fish carving is really referred to.  Perhaps there is a symbolism intended here, but it was lost on me.  A case of the writer being too clever for their own good?  Or just a mistake?

The ending seemed somewhat grafted on after a traumatic confrontation that one always hopes will be avoided,  Although it felt a little like an epilogue it is the part that would most interest me in interpretation.  Perhaps soem would read it as a sort of "happy ending" with the author "making good".  For myself it was quite the opposite, almost horrific in the fates left to the people.

I said at the bookgroup that this "put me right off Australians" but of course that is a generalisation rather than a specific.  I had to smile realising that one of the librarians attending was from Australia.  Eventually I do hope other readers of books will comment and in this case I'm especially interested in how they see the ending.