Neil Cooper

Kate Grenville got more than she bargained for when she set out to write a history book about her great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman. The idea had come about after the Australian novelist joined the 2000 Reconciliation Walk cross Sydney Harbour. With more than 250,000 people taking part, the walk was a major statement in acknowledgement of Australia’s colonial past and its treatment of the country’s indigenous Aboriginal community, as well as present day disenfranchisement. In what was the largest political demonstration Australia had seen, for Grenville, it was something of a wake-up call.

The book that eventually resulted, The Secret River, became, not a biography of her ancestor, but a fictional epic about the fractious relationship between English settlers and existing Aborigine society, which had their land stolen while those who took it grow wealthy on the back of their presumptuousness. This is seen through the eyes of a man called William Thornhill, whose origins are similar to Grenville’s ancestor.

“My great-great-great grandfather was a convict,” says Grenville, as Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of her book for Sydney Theatre Company arrives at Edinburgh International Festival this week. “He stole wood and was transported from England to Australia, where he ‘took up land’, as it was described. That phrase stuck in my mind, and in 2000 there was this big moment to acknowledge our part in how the Aboriginal community were treated.

“When I took part in the march, I met this Aborigine woman, and she and I exchanged a look. It was a moment of acknowledgement about what happened, and I knew my great-great-great grandfather had been there, and she knew her own ancestors had been there, and I knew that they would have been the people driven from their land by my great-great-great grandfather. I realised as well that rather than saying the settlers ‘took up land’, that it was better and more accurate to say that they ‘took land.”

When she wrote The Secret River, over five years prior to its publication in 2005, Grenville was aware that she was putting her head above the parapet in terms of fictionalising a still emotionally charged part of her country’s history. The critical and public response to the book, however, suggested she had hit a nerve, and that there was a desire from both white and indigenous Australians to unearth the country’s hidden history. Published in the UK by Edinburgh’s Canongate imprint, Grenville’s novel went on to win numerous awards, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The Sydney Theatre Company first produced Bovell’s stage version in 2013, and is performed in the Aboriginal Dharug language as well as English, with the story narrated by an indigenous guide.

“The play does something I didn’t do,’ says Grenville. “The book is seen solely through the main character’s eyes, but the play does something more daring, and looks at things from both sides, from both the Aborigine characters and the settler characters. So it’s about two families, one who’ve lived there for forty or fifty years, the other who has just arrived, and they have no language in common. When the settler characters realise the Aborigine characters are speaking in a language they don’t understand, it’s a remarkable piece of theatre.”

Grenville was more cautious in her approach when writing her novel.

“There were places I felt I couldn’t go,” she says. “To step into the Aborigine world would risk appropriating their culture, and I didn’t want to do that. In terms of the book, there was a huge generosity from the Aborigine community. They’ve suffered huge losses, and to be frank those losses have come because we’ve taken things off them, but the book says to look at what happened, which came about because of people telling lies. In terms of the play, I have to pay tribute to the Aboriginal actors, who are being asked to perform something that was hugely traumatic in terms of what happened to their people.”

Since The Secret River was published, Grenville has written two other novels looking at colonialism in Australia. The first, The Lieutenant, published in 2008, is set thirty years before The Secret River, while Sarah Thornhill, dating from 2011, is a more explicit sequel, focusing on William Thornhill’s youngest daughter.

“I’ve always hated historical fiction,” Grenville says. “so when I found myself writing a historical book I wasn’t sure about it. But I write books that are set in the past, and I don’t know where fact and fiction ends.”

Grenville also wrote a non-fiction follow-up to The Secret River. While not the one she originally intended, Searching for the Secret River nevertheless looks into her methodology in her original research for her novel. There has also been an Australian television adaptation of The Secret River, which shows just how much Grenville’s book has impinged on her country’s national consciousness.

“It’s very hard to judge what effect the book has or hasn’t had,” she says, “but I was told the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was talking about Aboriginal issues and mentioned the book. I didn’t vote for him, so I have mixed feelings about that, but it seems as well to have gone beyond the country itself. I wrote the book at a particular time, and I think it captured something about that time. A lot of things that came out of looking into my family history opened up something that went beyond that.

“There are no easy answers about seeing people’s history decimated over some piece of land. The answer is, rather than lying, tell the truth about it. One thing you can do to try and resolve things is to look at what happened, because as long as you’re telling lies about it, you’re never going to get anywhere.”

The Secret River, Edinburgh International Festival @ King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, preview August 2, 7.30-10.20pm, August 3-10 (not August 5), 7.30-10.20pm, August 3, 8, 10, 11, 1.30-4.20pm.