On his first night in New South Wales, in 1806, William Thornhill?Thames boatman, thief, banished convict?gazes despairingly into the forest outside his flimsy hut. A spear-wielding Aborigine appears before him, and his dejection turns to rage. All he has is his family-"those soft parcels of flesh," sleeping behind him?and "the dirt under his bare feet, his small grip on this unknown place," and he is not about to give them up to a naked black stranger. The Aborigine responds with equal vehemence: "Be off, be off!" The episode shows, in miniature, the project of Grenville's magnificent novel?an unflinching exploration of modern Australia's origins. Like the settlers, we instinctively turn away from the ugly truths behind every cleared riverbank and every posted fence. But Grenville's psychological acuity, and the sheer gorgeousness of her descriptions of the territory being fought over, pulls us ever deeper into a time when one community's opportunity spelled another's doom.