Salt Creek and The Secret River

Let’s talk about confronting books.

Last month I read Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar and saw the stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.  Both deal with English settlers in Australia and the treatment of Aboriginal people (and their land).  They were different experiences – the play more visceral, the book more reflective – but with many parallels.

The Secret River was an incredible production, staged in Anstey Hill Quarry, 20 minutes’ drive from the centre of Adelaide, as part of the Adelaide Festival.

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Pre- theatre drinks at The Secret River with my sister Madeleine

A young English family, the Thornhills, try to make a new life in Australia, too poor to travel back home.  They settle on the Hawkesbury River after hearing that land is ‘available’ there.  This land is inhabited by Aboriginal people, who are suspicious and baffled by the strangers.  Their clothes, English habits and attempts to tame the land are almost comical and this effect – how foreign Australia seemed to the English – is powerfully brought to life in the quarry setting.

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Nathaniel Dean and Ningali Lawford-Wolf, The Secret River.  Photo credit: Sydney Theatre Company

Each hopes the other group will move on.  The English family is sympathetically portrayed but there are some cruel and unhinged characters down the river.  On the other hand, we see the Aboriginal families hunting, at home on the land, and the children playing together with humour and innocence.

Tension builds as the two groups cannot communicate with each other or coexist.  The menace of the bullies downriver creates a dark undertone.

During the first half I found myself resisting the story.  I knew how it ended (shamefully for white Australians) and did not want to relive it.  But the climax was moving and powerful.  The effects used to show the violence, mixed with the chilling “London Bridge is Falling Down”, made for superb theatre: it showed in one scene a whole history of imperialism and bloodshed.

The narrator, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, said something at the end about ‘witnessing’ what happened, lest it be forgotten. She was speaking about a character in the play, but I took it as an answer to my question: why watch uncomfortable theatre?  Because we need to be witnesses to history.

Salt Creek tells the story of English settlers taking land on the Coorong, South Australia.  The setting, 129 miles from Adelaide, is isolated even today and was at the end of the earth then.  They try to cling to their old social mores and rules but the father’s ventures (cattle, then sheep) fail.  Worse, they ruin the plants and waterholes used by the Aboriginal custodians of the land for thousands of years.  Civil life disintegrates.

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Again we see the desire by the wife to return to England or at least to the city, and the husband dreaming of fortunes to be made.  We follow the story through Hester, their daughter, who is trapped there by circumstance.  Slowly they come unstuck and, despite good intentions, cannot live with the Aboriginal inhabitants.

I found this slow to start, but ended up enjoying it.  The thoughtful writing, immersion in the desolate landscape and determination of Hester kept me reading.  The isolation, and the cruelty of the settlers depressed me – the father in particular was extremely unlikeable.  But the journey of Hester is interesting and her conscience about what happened to the Aboriginal people (many died or became ill from imported diseases, their children removed and sent to missions, sacred sites ruined) is something to reflect on.  It was not her fault exactly but there is a sense of wrongdoing.

I read Salt Creek as part of the Read Harder challenge: a book set within 100 miles of your location (near enough, I hope!).  We spend our summers at Goolwa Beach, where the Coorong starts, so the location did resonate with me.  Goolwa was famously the setting for Storm Boy, a classic book by Colin Thiele and 1976 movie (now being remade).

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Goolwa Beach

What are your favourite confronting books?

Mad March

Here is a snapshot of life in Adelaide – I had the pleasure of a friend from London Book Club visiting last weekend, so was able to share with her all the craziness that is Mad March!

Adelaide Writers’ Week is one of my favourite events – it’s free, held in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens among the trees, and attracts big-name authors and new (to me) discoveries.  It is part of the Adelaide Festival – this year’s highlight for me will be Neil Armfield’s The Secret River, adapted from Kate Grenville’s book and staged in a quarry.  At the same time we have the Fringe (the world’s second-largest annual arts festival).  Then there’s the Adelaide 500 V8 supercar race (don’t mention the road closures) and this weekend is Womadelaide. Whew!

On Saturday I ducked into Writers’ Week to hear Nathan Hill discussing his fabulous novel The Nix.  I’m thrilled to hear that it’s being made into a movie with Meryl Streep. He was super engaging and I love the book so far – funny, with a sense of playfulness that reminds me of (but is easier than) David Foster Wallace.

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Nathan Hill and Steven Gale

We were lucky enough to have a dinner booking at Peel St – having been away last year, I’ve so missed their blend of casual atmosphere and exceptional, fresh food. Heaven!  Then onto the Riverbank Parc Palais for a larger-than-expected frosé.

 

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Cimone, me and Alex on the riverbank (Adelaide Oval behind us).

Sunday and back to Writers’ Week for stories based on true crime, with Graeme Macrae Burnet discussing the Booker-shortlisted His Bloody Project and Hannah Kent with the follow-up to her outstanding debut Burial Rites, The Good People.  Entertaining and articulate, definitely worth the early start (two macchiatos later!).  Graeme Macrae Burnet was signing his book with a fingerprint, so of course I had to break my book ban and buy a copy.

Next up, the Art Gallery of South Australia for the incredible Versus Rodin exhibition.  Leigh Robb has done a beautiful job with her first major exhibition in her new role as Contemporary Curator.  She has juxtaposed the Rodin works with modern paintings and sculpture – by artists such as Sarah Lucas, Antony Gormley and Louise Bourgeouis – on the theme of the human body.  It’s on until 2 July – come and see it!

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‘Finger Churches’ by Dennis Oppenheim

Next up was 2KW for a rooftop drink and tapas (= Sol Sessions).

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2KW Sol Sessions

Then onto a Fringe Show, the fabulous, talented and funny Hugh Sheridan with the California Crooners.  So, so good!  I have been spoilt with live music in the past and some artists cannot be compared (Bruce Springsteen) , but the Crooners gave us such a fun, relaxed night of entertainment – a wonderful show.  We were too busy dancing so my photos are all blurry – but here is the pretty setting on the Torrens, looking back to the Riverbank Palais (see earlier frosé).

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River Torrens, looking south from Adelaide Oval. 

Monday and time to meet another author – the wonderful and engaging Jessie Burton, discussing The Muse – one of my favourite books of 2016.  More coffee needed…

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Alex was departing Monday night so how to fit in all of South Australia’s famous wineries?  Luckily, 10 minutes from the city is Magill Estate, home of one of our most iconic winemakers, Penfolds.  We did a tasting, followed by lunch at the Kitchen – absolutely superb and the Express Lunch is amazing value at $35 for 2 courses plus a glass of wine.  We had duck bao for entree, perfectly roasted, crispy duck leg with pumpkin for main and a chocolate dessert… Mondayitis begone!

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Not my usual Monday lunch: the chocolate dessert at Magill Estate Kitchen, before we demolished it.

And that’s all for one weekend!  Next up: more Festival reports, and why today’s book haul had a Japan theme….