‘Sarah Thornhill’ by Kate Grenville


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 307 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sarah Thornhill is the third title in a loose trilogy of ‘colonial’ novels by the Australian author Kate Grenville. The other two are The Secret River (2006) and The Lieutenant (2009), but each novel can be taken as a standalone read — what binds them together is not so much character but setting and time period.

The Thornhill family

That said, if you have read The Secret River you will already have met the Thornhill family and followed their exploits settling on the Hawkesbury River. In this new novel, the author focuses on Sarah, the youngest daughter of William Thornhill, a convict-turned-landowner, who is about to uncover a dark family secret. (Readers of The Secret River will already know the secret, but that does not make it any less shocking — or distressing.)

The story is told through Sarah’s eyes in an old fashioned but quite endearing vernacular.

They called us the Colony of New South Wales. I never liked that. We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves.

Born in 1816, Sarah has five older siblings — one sister and four brothers, one of whom is an outcast — who call her Dolly, a name that she detests (“never wanted to be a doll”). Her mother, of whom she has only the vaguest recollection is dead, and a second Ma is in her place. Life is relatively good — her father has made something of himself and he employs several staff, including a “native boy for the wood”. Although the family is well off they are not gentry and none of them are educated — or as Sarah puts it, “none of us Thornhills had our letters” — but they are forthright, confident and hard working.

More than a romance

At its most basic level, the story could be described as a romance, because the narrative charts Sarah’s love affair with Jack Langland, who is half Aboriginal. But on a deeper level, the book explores notions of class and race in a fledgling society that had no past and was, essentially, British — as opposed to Australian.

There are references to the Stolen Generations in the form of Rachel, a half Maori girl whom Sarah’s older brother fathered during a sealing trip to New Zealand. Rachel is brought to the Thornhill home against her mother’s wishes in an attempt to “get her civilised”. It’s a heartbreaking episode, because the girl, who is five or six years old, cannot speak English, she’s never slept alone before, cannot use cutlery and does not wear shoes on her feet. Yet Sarah’s stepmother “wouldn’t be bested”.

Something in the girl broke. By the end of he first week she let herself be washed, let her hair be brushed and tied up with red ribbon, sat at the meal table and used the spoon. Ate, but no appetite or pleasure in it.

The novel, which is richly evocative of the Australian landscape, also explores the concept of being connected to the land. All around her Sarah sees the natives living in the bush, but has no appreciation of their spiritual connection to it. It is only when she hears an Irishwoman sing a lament, accompanied by a fiddle player, that she understands…

…what it was to belong to a place. To be brought undone by the music of the land where you’d been born. The loss as sharp a pain as mourning a lover. Us currency lads and lasses had no feeling like that about the land we called ours. It had no voice that we could hear, no song we could sing. Nothing but a blank where the past was. Emptiness, like a closed room, at our backs.

Storytelling that zips along

I loved reading this book and got completely immersed in the storytelling, which zips along at a steady pace. It isn’t a perfect novel — the New Zealand bit felt slightly tacked on, for instance, and sometimes I thought that the 21st century pro-Aboriginal stance didn’t sit naturally in a 19th century setting.

But I think Sarah is such a wonderful character — feisty, outspoken and believable — that it more than makes up for these slight failings. I could feel her heartbreak, her rage, her sheer incomprehension and her desire to make things better as palpable emotions throughout the book. Her voice is the heart and soul of this richly layered novel about tangled histories and family secrets.

10 thoughts on “‘Sarah Thornhill’ by Kate Grenville

  1. Hi Kim, I had major doubts about the plausibility of that ending, but won’t raise them here for fear of spoilers. Suffice to say that we have had a very spirited discussion about this book within the ‘closed walls’ of my book-group. Interestingly, it’s been longlisted for the Miles Franklin which is (supposed to be) for literary fiction, and also for the Aust. Book Industry Awards in the Popular Fiction category…


  2. I suspect the ending was put in because the author had travelled to New Zealand, where the idea of this book came to her “out of the cosmos”, and she felt she needed to include some kind of NZ thread. It felt a bit tacked on to me.
    That said, in the immediate afterglow of having read this book, I wanted to give it a five-star review. But as time has gone on, and the story started to “settle” in my head, I began to see some of its (minor) failings. I think it is a very good story — whether it is literary fiction or popular fiction is hard to decide; I hate these kinds of divides, because it insinuates that one form is “better” than the other, and suggests that a literary book can’t be a popular one as well.


  3. I had the same afterglow! This was a story I really enjoyed reading, it was afterwards that my doubts surfaced and they grew and grew the more I thought about it, and almost everyone in my bookgroup has had the same experience. It seems to be a book that diminishes with analysis or discussion which is the reverse of what usually happens with a Grenville book.
    I don’t think the labels popular/litfic imply better or worse, they are merely useful guides that help me filter the available books so that I can find the ones I’m most likely to enjoy. I like challenging books that take me out of my comfort zone so I’m more likely to choose something badged as litfic – and I can usually tell by the kind of cover a book has whether it’s in that category. But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy popular fiction too. There is nothing better than a new Penny Vincenzi to while away those 20 hours in the plane from Melbourne to London!
    I think that part of the ‘divide’ issue is because the word ‘popular’ has come to mean something slightly different in contemporary publishing. It doesn’t just mean that a book has wide-ranging appeal any more. Graham Greene is the classic example of that: literary yet also very popular, and George Johnson was a bestseller too. But I suspect that neither would be shelved on the Popular Fiction shelves today, because ‘popular’ has come to mean ‘straightforward plots’, easy-to-read, no unresolved endings that leave a reader confused etc. Popular fiction can tackle serious issues (as Jodi Piccoult’s and Thomas Keneally’s books do) and it can be beautifully written as long as there’s no obscure symbolism. There may be plenty of issues to think about but it’s not going to leave a reader feeling confused about the story itself.
    It would be really interesting to know how publishers choose which category to put books into. Do they have a checklist to go by, LOL?


  4. I’m glad you like this because I do too, very much. it’s Grenville’s language, uniquely hers and reads like a dream. I love Sarah, strong and sensible, my idea of a great female character. The NZ bit was a bit of a latched-on that I can do without. Thanks for the review!


  5. Glad to hear you enjoyed it. Having read the three in this trilogy I’m keen to explore her back catalogue — I think I have all of them in my TBR somewhere.


  6. I often wonder how publishers choose this, too. I read a book a couple of years ago that was labelled as litfic but I found it more akin to YA — I told the publisher that sent it to me for review and they said they appreciated the feedback because they had trouble knowing how to market it!
    In terms of the divisions between litfic and popular fiction, I always think of my time working at the Myer Melbourne bookstore (I was employed there between 1991-1994) when it was billed as the biggest bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere. The specialist buyer said if the book could be sold in a supermarket, it was popular fiction. Indeed, she called it “supermarket fiction”. I was obviously brainwashed, because I sometimes use this phrase in conversation and then have to explain it!


  7. I loved this book. I liked the NZ segment because it illustrated the need to seek atonement for not acting on our good intentions. It is so much easier to procrastinate about righting injustice.
    I recommend Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies; in my view, a real story about revenge and now the winner of the Booker Prize.


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