William Thornhill grows up in poverty in London, takes to petty crime and then gets a chance to become a waterman, a good way of earning honest money but then is thrown back into poverty again when his sponsor dies. He then resorts to crime again and is sentenced to death but that sentence is commuted to transporation.
From this start, the reader is on his side as he battles to support himself and his family. He is in the midst of a society which values property way above human life.
It was in the telling of the story of Thornhill and his wife trying to build something up in Australia that I realised with a shock that I was rooting for him even though as the story progresses this is at the expense of the indigenous people. He isn't a bad man but there are some among the settlers who see things as more give and take but he can't quite succeed in doing that as his own desire to have some land and something of his own comes before anything else and indigenous people are of no account to him.
I think this ambivalent feeling comes from the writing which is even-handed, unemotional and non-judgmental which is why it came as such a shock.
Thornhill is a vivid character, other characters, even including his wife, less so, and everything is tending towards the moment when Thornhill has to make a choice.
There are some very beautiful descriptions of the landscape, making it sound in some ways like a latterday Garden of Eden, but dangerous.
It did start to drag for me about a third of the way through. I did find it an interesting read but it did make me feel uncomfortable because I found myself questioning whose "side" I should be on. I think for such a calm style of writing to achieve that effect is worthy of praise but I have only given it three stars as I felt it dragged and the only well-drawn protagonist was Thornhill himself.