Grenville makes the opening scene of ‘The Secret River’ significant by using a plot cycle to hint at what happens to Thornhill later in the book. She immediately shows the clash of lifestyle between the Aboriginals and Thornhill to hint at the problems this causes as Thornhill lives on the island. However, the short scene does not reveal much about the backstory of Thornhill nor about his new lifestyle, which immediately grabs the interest of the reader. Not only do they want to know what Thornhill did to deserve this fate, but they also want to know how he adapts to life at New South Wales and how he copes with the numerous problems that may arrive. This is a clever way to start the book to draw the reader in.
Grenville makes this scene significant by showing the clash in lifestyle between the Aboriginals and Thornhill and, therefore, hinting at the problems Thornhill will encounter later in the book. There is an uncertainty to the reader as to who is more powerful – Thornhill or the Aboriginal. Grenville does this to give the reader a sense of confusion – the same confusion Thornhill would have, as he does not know who is more powerful himself by the end of the encounter with the Aboriginal. He is initially very dismissive of the man, saying he will ‘not surrender his family to any naked black man.’ The word ‘any’ suggests they are all the same to Thornhill – all inferior to him. Thornhill also shows his perceived superiority by talking of the Aboriginal as if he were an animal – inhumane. When he tells Thornhill to ‘be off’, Thornhill described this as a ‘madness, as if a dog were to bark in English.’ The word ‘dog’ shows he compares the Aboriginal to an animal and thinks lowly of him. However, the Aboriginal does show hints of power and intelligence. We can see that he can speak English when his mouth ‘began to move itself around sounds’. He is also powerful because he has a spear, which was ‘a part of him, an extension of his arm’ – he knows how to use it. The fully clothed Thornhill felt ‘as skinless as a maggot’ to the black man’s ‘tall and serious’ spear and ‘the thought’ of the damage the spear could do ‘fanned Thornhill’s rage. In this scene we see shifts in power between Thornhill and the Aboriginal, which is significant, as it proves troublesome later in the book.
Grenville also decides to begin the book with a scene that happens later so the reader feels sorry for Thornhill from the start. This is significant as it means the reader can read about Thornhill’s relatively happy life in London while knowing that something ‘worse than dying’ will happen to him. Grenville intends to let the reader get to know Thornhill well and to get to like him while knowing his fate. This makes the book more emotionally effective as it makes the reader feel unhappy about Thornhill’s destiny and never really enjoy the good moments of Thornhill’s life in London.
Grenville describes the landscape of New South Wales powerfully and vividly to show the contrast between this wasteland and the crowded city of London. This is effective and significant as it shows how low Thornhill has fallen as a result of his crime and how serious his punishment is. It also adds to the sympathy the reader feels for Thornhill. Grenville makes the setting seem intimidating and uninviting. The ‘trees stood tall over Thornhill’ in this ‘settlement hidden by darkness.’ The imagery of the trees shows how small Thornhill feels in this area. The word ‘darkness’ also has a sense of mystery and secrecy tied with it, which can be scary and daunting. Grenville also says that ‘the breeze shivered through the leaves, then died.’ The word ‘shivered’ implies that Thornhill will shiver himself and be uncomfortable and cold in this prison and ‘died’ is a very unpleasant word, which suggests that Thornhill will die here. Thornhill shares this view, claiming ‘he will die here under these alien stars.’ The word ‘alien’ tells the reader that this place is extremely unfamiliar and hostile to Thornhill. Additionally, Grenville compares the landscape to an unknown prison ‘whose bars were ten thousand miles of water.’ She says this place was ‘at the end of the earth’ which implies it is extremely unfamiliar and Thornhill has no idea what’s in store for him. Grenville gives the land a life of its own, almost, comparing it to ‘an enormous quite creature.’ This suggests it can wake up and attack like an actual sleeping creature. She also describes the night as ‘living’, which is terrifying for anyone who has to sleep there.