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The Secret River spans the two and a half decades that opened in the grip of the ‘bright young things’ of the mid-twenties and closed in the blanket embrace of the Welfare State. It takes us from Bayswater, via the Sussex countryside, the South of France, a seaside resort on the South Coast and a ‘garden-city’ in Hampshire, to the final climax in Waterloo Station.
It tells the story of Harriet Ashworth as a child, an adolescent and a young woman, and of her mother, vain, silly, snobbish and egocentric, yet not entirely unsympathetic – whether she is aping a London hostess, a Lady of the Manor or the smart set on the Riviera, or flying desperately to ‘The Wilderness’ in search of safety from the bombs – and it is in her shadow that Harriet must live her life. She stays at her mother’s side from love, from filial duty and because she comes to realise more and more that without her presence her mother would drift rudderless to absolute disaster. She is a study in self-abnegation. Her friends can make their own lives, but she cannot. Only in the closing section of the novel does opportunity beckon at last.
The Secret River is full of beautifully observed scenes that pin-point a class and a period. The dramatis personae are many and varied, beautifully observed with the author’s penetrating eye. Yet it is Harriet and her mother who dominate the story. On the former – a complex blend of romantic idealism and intellectual emancipation – the author has bestowed his more subtle gifts. As a contrast, he has drawn the mother with bolder strokes, and many readers will find in her one of the outstanding characters in the fiction of the tie.
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