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.