Monday, December 31, 2007


It's holiday-time, when each of us can most usefully relax with the book-gifts our family have bestowed on us at Christmas. Thanks Karen for another beauty!

Here's a good summary, from The Observer

Sunday January 22, 2006
The Observer

The Secret River
by Kate Grenville

Following The Idea of Perfection was always going to be a tough call. Five years on from her Orange Prize-winning bestseller about middle-aged love in the Outback, Kate Grenville has turned to something quite different: historical fiction and a story about convict settlement.

This is a narrative whose outlines we know already: convicts transported to Sydney, eventually pardoned, encouraged to settle what seemed to be an empty continent. They didn't understand, and wouldn't have cared, that the land they were occupying was sacred to the mysterious, dark-skinned people who appeared and disappeared from the forests and seemed to them no more than naked savages.

The William Thornhill born in the opening pages is clearly marked out for poverty, suffering, degradation and criminality. We've been reading this story at least since Dickens...

It does, though, turn out to be worth it. There isn't much underlying moral ambiguity in this book: the costs of settlement are appalling, which makes Thornhill its villain, even while he carries its sympathetic weight. Grenville is particularly good on inarticulate love, and Thornhill's relationship with his wife, Sal, civilises him, makes him a good man and ensures that the reader is on his side. As husband, father and hard-working, decent man, he is also the book's hero.

Once freed, Thornhill falls in love with a point of land up the Hawkesbury River with the visceral desire for ownership of someone who has never been allowed to own anything. He dreams of his own hundred acres, of dignity and entitlement. It never crosses his mind, since the land is not settled, that it could already be owned. Grenville writes exactingly and with passion about the Australian landscape: the bright light, the skinny, grey-green trees that refuse to shed their leaves, the cliffs that tumble into the river through snaking mangroves. Thornhill recognises that this is a landscape that can remake a man.

She is also wonderful on the ex-cons who settle the river, left to get on with things by the authorities. Some, miraculously, find ways to accommodate themselves with the Aborigines, despite their isolation, fear and brutal pasts. Gradually, Thornhill starts faintly to appreciate that the Aborigines most remind him of the gentry back home. They don't appear to work for their food: they spend their days creating art, telling stories, making their babies laugh. And then he has to make a decision. This is where the sense that the book is heading somewhere familiar really works for Grenville; she plays throughout on a threat of impending disaster. It's difficult to read this novel without a heavy heart, because it's obvious that not everything can possibly work out.

Violence is erupting along the river, but a way opens up for Will to keep his wife and children safe and hold on to everything he has worked for. All it would take would be to stomach the necessary bloody, terrible, knowing violence. The Secret River is a sad book, beautifully written and, at times, almost unbearable with the weight of loss, competing distresses and the impossibility of making amends.


This book is a commentary on the universal problem of 'ethnophobia' - fear of the other. There are settlers who are cruel, others kind; the same with aborigines. And when violence spirals into more violence, we have a horrific outcome. Those with the most lethal toys (guns) win. An important book.

Rowland Croucher

December 2007


I've just finished reading The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom (Little, Brown & Time Warner Paperbacks 25 September 2003) - a Christmas present (thanks Karen).

Here's part of the current (December 2007) Wikipedia article on it:

The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a novel by Mitch Albom, published in 2003. A television movie of the same name was broadcast by ABC in 2004, starring Jon Voight as the main character, Eddie.

Introduction and Death

Eddie is walking around Ruby Pier, where he works as a maintenance man, and meets a little girl. He makes her a bunny out of pipe cleaners, as he does for other kids at the Pier. Later, Freddy's Free Fall (a ride) breaks down, and the little girl is under it. Eddie dives under the ride to try and save her, but he dies.

First Person in Heaven

The first man Eddie meets in Heaven is the "Blue Man." Eddie was the cause of this man's death. At a young age, a baseball was thrown, and passed in front of the Blue Man's car. When Eddie, as a child, went to get the ball, he was almost hit by the Blue Man driving the car. The Blue Man was incredibly nervous for minutes afterwards and finally hits a truck, the damage of which causes a fatal heart attack.

Second Person in Heaven

The second lesson takes place within the Philippine jungle. The second person Eddie meets is his old captain from the war. The captain teaches Eddie the lesson of sacrifice, where when we sacrifice something we gain something too. The Captain sacrificed Eddie's leg, he shot it. That is why he has the limp. He was trying to save Eddie from walking in a fire. When they tried to get Eddie to a medical unit, the Captain went to go check out to see if the path was safe, and blew up from a mine. In the case of Eddie, he was shot in the leg which caused irreparable damage and crippled him for the rest of his life. However, consequentially, he was given the chance to continue with his life.

"You didn't get it. Sacrifice is a part of life. It's supposed to be. It's not something to regret. It's something to aspire to. Little sacrifices. Big sacrifices..."

Third Person in Heaven

After The Captain is gone, everything around him changes again, and now he is in a snow mountain. He starts to walk until he arrives at a restaurant where he sees his father. The writer describes the relationship Eddie had with his father since his childhood until Eddie’s father's death. Eddie meets a lady named Ruby. She is the wife of the owner of the Ruby Pier.That is where the "ruby" in Ruby Pier comes from. She is the third person he meets in heaven and she tells him the truth about his father. He died fighting a disease. Eddie's Mother blamed herself for not calling the doctor in time, but Eddie knew it was his drunken father's fault. With this, she speaks about loyalty the human beings must have with people who have been considerable with them. She teaches him the third lesson: Forgiveness. Eddie must forgive his father and does not feel more rage and resentment towards him.

"Learn this from me. Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from inside. We think that hatred is the weapon that attacks the person who harmed us. But hatred is a curved blade. And the harm we do, we do to ourselves.

Fourth Person in Heaven

The fourth person Eddie meets in heaven is his wife: Marguerite. She has chosen a wedding place to stay in heaven. Eddie meets her being young as she was when they got married. She teaches him the fourth lesson: Love does not have an end. When people die, love takes a different form, that’s all. To be left out in the dark.

"Lost love is still love, Eddie. It takes a different form, that's all. You can't see their smile or bring them food or tousle their hair or move them around a dance floor. But when those senses weaken, another heightens. Memory, memory becomes your partner. You nurture it. You hold it. You dance with it. Life has to end," she said. "Love doesn't."

Fifth Person in Heaven

The fifth person Eddie meets in heaven is a small Philippine girl whose name is Tala (means 'star' in Tagalog). Tala is described as being approximately five or six years old with a cinnamon complexion and hair the color of dark plum. Eddie meets Tala in an idyllic stream location where other young children are playing in a stream. It is thought that this nook of heaven is for the children whose memories are so small that an idea of bliss hasn't had the chance to form in their imaginations yet. Tala teaches Eddie that everyone has a purpose to life that not only affects their own lives but unknowingly touches the lives of others. Tala was the person that brought Eddie to heaven, but also died in the shed that Eddie lit afire, proving that Eddie really did see something in the shed. She also tells him that he saved the girl from the falling amusement park ride.

"I was sad because I didn't do anything with my life. I was nothing. I accomplished nothing. I felt like I wasn't supposed to be there." Tala plucked the pipe cleaner dog from the water. "Supposed to be there," She said. "Where? At Ruby pier?" She nodded. "Fixing rides? That was my existence?" He blew a deep breath. "Why?" She tilted her head as if it were obvious. "Children," She said. "You keep them safe. You make good for me."


The only comment I'd make, as a Christian, is that this book portrays a creative approach to heaven's being a 'catch-up' with all the people with whom we've interacted during this life. It will be an interesting... I was nearly going to say... time!

Rowland Croucher


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