This is my second book by Kate Grenville and the one that won the Orange Prize. It begins with the description of the child Will Thornhill in the desperate slums of London and his redeeming connection with his childhood girlfriend, whose situation was much better than his. He eventually does well, with the help of his father-in-law until a long freeze shuts down his work on the river. He is caught stealing and spends months in Newgate prison awaiting his hanging. He is miraculously saved and sent instead to New South Wales along with his wife and children. Their existence is better than the bad times in London, and he becomes a free man.
The heart of the story is Will's discovery that he could claim land along the Hawkesbury River by cultivating a plot of it. While he worked on a boat on the river, he spotted a point that he came to view as Thornhill Point and eventually was able to move his family there from Sydney. From the outset it was clear the land was inhabited by aboriginals; it was Will's hunger for land of his own that blinded him to the falseness of his position. And our view of his willingness to take the land is tempered by the horror of his childhood and the adversity he had faced as a young man. He is contrasted with other settlers, especially the truly dispicable Smasher Sullivan, but in the moment of decision, he will not leave his land and he joins the bloodthirsty crowd seeking retribution for a murder committed by the blacks. Ultimately the settlers prevail, and Will becomes the rich Mr. Thornhill with a fine house and servants.
We see occasional indications that Will and especially his young son Dick recognize and value the aboriginals they encounter. The heartbreak is that they are no match for the endless tide of settlers coming their way.