Anybody who has read Kate Grenville's award winning The Secret River
is bound to be curious about the parallels between Grenville's real ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, and the fictional William Thornhill, both convicts shipped off from London to Australia in the beginning of the nineteenth century. While starting out to write a biography of her great-great-great grandfather, what research did she embark on, what discoveries and mental processes led her in the end to move from a biography to a work of historical fiction? The author, honest, self-aware and self-critical, takes the reader on a fascinating journey into her mind, her feelings and analyses of people and places. Also, and of equal interest to those who have not (yet) read the novel, this "writer's memoir" is an enjoyable "how to" guide for any personal writing project. It contains a few "mantras about writing", such as "never start with a blank page", or "don't wait for time to write", etc. Grenville, who also teaches creative writing, walks the talk herself and the insights she shares with her readers make this a very personal and engaging story.
I use the term "story" deliberately as it reads much more like a story of discovery and less as a writer's guide or even a "memoir". Her exquisite style and rich language that evoke landscapes and city-scapes in such vivid colours and detail that you feel you are walking along with her. Her research into the real great-great-great grandfather was not straight forward, of course, as records were scarce, family stories were not factual and there were numerous Solomon W. and dozens of Wisemans living in London around the same time in the same part of town... How she narrows down her search is also a guide for anybody interested in their own family genealogy - just fascinating. One aspect that helped her later on in her writing (and the reader of the novel will recognize them): she picked up small mementoes, stood on the spot where she imagined her ancestor had been standing. As soon as she made the connection, she can feel him, get under his skin. Only then does the character develop his own persona and as author she has to accept that she follows and he controls.
Immense amount of research spanning several years resulted in filling one major gap in her knowledge or imagination after another. Recreating the language of working class people and fishermen as spoken in the late seventeen nineties was another challenge Grenville had to deal with: Solomon was not literate but later historical documents suggest that he learned to write, although in a stilted, ungrammatical sort of way. While the author made remarkable progress on the male side of her family, the female side, her great-great-great grandmother remained a mystery to her for the longest time. Few information snippets existed in the family archive and memory... so what to do? Her answer, after several false starts, is intriguing, and not only from the perspective of the novel's character development.
The most difficult part of her search and research, however, was to imagine how the real Solomon Wiseman reacted to and interacted with the Aborigines when he and his young family first arrived in Australia. In investigating what might have happened, Grenville realized that she herself lacked much information and knowledge about the life of the aboriginal peoples of her country. Her learning path in this field is deeply moving as she gently and subtly explores what happened at the time of early confrontation and what could have been Wiseman's role in these encounters. For her own life it was another voyage of discovery.
This "writing memoir" is such a beautifully and engagingly written book that it should be seen as an essential compendium for those who read THE SECRET RIVER. For others it is still a great read and probably a motivation to pick up the novel afterwards. [Friederike Knabe]