This was a prison whose bars were ten thousand miles of water.
William Thornhill, a waterman on the Thames, is sentenced to death for stealing timber. Through the favour of a patron, his sentence is commuted to transportation, and his wife, Sal, and their young son accompany him to New South Wales. Sal, as a free woman, has the rights of a settler: Thornhill is assigned to labour for his own wife, which gives them something to laugh about after the nine-month voyage.
Thornhill's well-behaved, and lucky besides: within a year he has his 'ticket of leave', making him a free man -- with the single proviso that he can't leave the colony. Sal is determined to get home to England, and she knows that a man who works hard and keeps his nose clean can eventually apply for a pardon, and be free to go. She's been running a grog shop, the Sign of the Pickled Herring (the sign being a slab of London roof-tile that she picked up at Pickled Herring Wharf on her last morning in England) and saving up the profits for the long passage home.
Thornhill, though, has fallen in love. Reluctantly, slowly, without realising it: he's in love with a patch of land, a remote peninsula in the empty land miles up the Hawkesbury River, a week's round trip from Sydney and a million miles from Pickled Herring Wharf. Sal makes a deal: five years and then we'll go home. Thornhill agrees, but his heart's not in it. The freedom of the valley, the equality of the settlers, the virgin earth feel more like home to him. There and only there, a man did not have to drag his stinking past around with him like a dead dog.
But the land only seems empty.
Reports of 'outrages and depradations' are a staple of the local press: the Aborigines trying to stake a recognisable claim what they've held so lightly for so long. Thornhill does his best: he begins to recognise that there are other ways of farming, other methods of husbandry. Instead of hunting kangaroos, the Aborigines burn the scrub and wait til their prey comes to feast on new growth. But it's a precarious equilibrium and matters come to a head when the Aborigines begin to gather ...
And then comes the saddest time of all, the rest of their lives: when Thornhill sits in his mansion at Thornhill Point, his telescope trained on the hills, trying to make figures from tree-branches and shadows. Looking for something that's no longer there. And for the first time in his life, there is something that he cannot speak to Sal about: their lives had slowly grown around it, the way the roots of a river-fig grew around a rock.
The tragedy is slow and almost gentle, the story of a man trying to live a good life and failing not through malevolence or error but through sheer incomprehension. The story of the crime that has to be committed in order for them to stay.
Grenville writes Thornhill as a simple man -- a deep thinker, and not a fool, but a man who tries to create home and family as best he can in a place where there are no rules and no guidance.