Sarah Thornhill is the third book in Kate Grenville’s loose trilogy depicting life in the early days after Australia’s settlement. Like the previous novels, The Secret River (2005) and The Lieutenant (2008), Sarah Thornhill fictionalises actual stories of settlement. In the process, Grenville transforms our history into something immediate and tangible, which gives readers the chance to enter our shared past.
There are, of course, many arguments about the use of history in fiction, and the gulf between what ‘really’ happened and the representation of events. In a way, Sarah Thornhill grew from this tension between fiction and history. The novel was inspired by a family story passed down to Grenville, regarding the tragic early death of one of the daughters of Solomon Wiseman (a loose model for The Secret River’s Will Thornhill). This contradicted Grenville’s research, which suggested that Wiseman’s daughters had lived long lives. If that was the case, who was it that died? From this historical knot a complicated tale of love, loss, and culture was born.
The eponymous Sarah Thornhill is the youngest daughter of emancipated convict Will Thornhill. If The Secret River was about the young nation’s darker secrets, Sarah Thornhill concerns familial secrets and their repercussions. Sarah, like many of the trilogy’s characters, is caught between two worlds. As the daughter of a convict, she cannot read or write, but now that Will is one of the wealthiest landowners along the Hawkesbury River she is leading a genteel life. Although it is only the 1820s, the entire settlement is already putting its violent past behind it as speedily as possible. There is much repression of origins and experience as a result. Sarah’s mother is long dead, and Will has remarried a woman we know as ‘Ma’. It is Ma who completes the job that Will – tentatively, ambivalently, murderously – began when he asserted his right to the Hawkesbury’s fertile lands by killing some of its original occupants. But while Will elevated his class status through brutality, Ma uses gossip and innuendo to bolster her family’s place in the world.
Sarah Thornhill is written from Sarah’s point of view; her voice is strong and true. The rhythms of her speech alone take this novel a long way. Even as a child, Sarah knows there are things that cannot be mentioned. She learns that she has an elder brother, Dick, but no one will tell her why he left home. ‘That’s how it was on the Hawkesbury. Everything hidden away and those everlasting cliffs and ridges blocking us into the narrow valley. I wanted to push them back, get a clear look at all the things people knew but wouldn’t say.’
Alhough only ten years old, Sarah becomes attached to Jack Langland, a friend of her eldest brother (another Will). The two men go sealing each year; on his return Jack always brings Sarah a gift. What starts as a game between a child and a young man turns into a love affair, one complicated by the fact that Jack’s mother is Aboriginal. Jack, desperate to please, neither Indigenous nor English, is merely tolerated. Sarah and other more generous-spirited folk agree that while Jack’s skin is dark he is the same as everyone else. But he isn’t. ‘He knew better than me. Knew the colourof your skin and thecolour of your mother’s skin wasn’t a thing you could brush aside. It was part of who you were, even if no one wanted to talk about it.’
Some of the best writing in Sarah Thornhill concerns the body – the love it makes (‘Like a hunger or a thirst, what I felt for Jack. Not anything in your power to say no to’); and the brutality it inflicts: ‘Snatched at my hair, tore it out in strands, glad of the pain ...’ It is about the colour of skin and, as Jack’s tattoos suggest, the marks we leave on ourselves.
Jack is forced to embrace his black heritage, as well as his white, when Will Thornhill Sr sends for a young Maori girl, his granddaughter. Thornhill figures that she shouldn’t be brought up as a native, though it is clear she has also become part of his clumsy attempts to apologise for his role in the massacre of natives two decades before. Jack helps Thornhill to distance the girl from her people and her language, but as he witnesses the child’s isolation and pain he comes to understand the ways in which he has refused his own history. His attempts to return the girl to New Zealand disrupt his life with Sarah, as well as her relationship with her father. When harsh truths are aired, Sarah’s heart is broken; like her father, she is condemned to a life of making amends. But whereas Will Thornhill Sr has chosen the path of silence, Sarah comes to realise that the only way forward is to speak the truth, no matter how painful.
All of the novels in Grenville’s trilogy are episodic, but it is somewhat of a jolt for the reader to realise that the love story that has taken up the first two-thirds of the novel is not where the heart of the book lies. Thankfully, what happens next – Sarah decides to make a life for herself with a new man in new lands – is the strongest section of Sarah Thornhill. Grenville has an ability to make you see landscape afresh and to experience something of the fear and pleasure that such wild beauty and isolation evoked in the settlers. When Sarah gives birth to a daughter, Grenville writes of the labour in a way so visceral we marvel that the human race manages to reproduce at all, given the dangers involved and the loneliness of that great journey.
Grenville’s ability to transport the reader back in time, and the immediacy of her prose, have been the source of some contention. After the publication of The Secret River, historian Inga Clendinnen was extremely critical of the novel and what she called its ‘contemporary delicacy of mind’. More recently (not to mention more respectfully and moderately), James Bradley asked whether the second novel of the trilogy, The Lieutenant, was an ‘expression of a very particular contemporary desire to find accommodation with the past’. Such questions are equally relevant with Sarah Thornhill. At times, Sarah’s responses feel too modern: for example, her shock and shame when she learns why ‘the tall crooked’ black man who lives on their property has such a ruined face and why her father’s face was always twisted ‘like an animal eating him at the inside’. Would a woman of those times be so shocked to learn of such violence? Would she push herself to such punishing lengths to make amends? While Sarah Thornhill’s final sequence is starkly poetic, I found myself unconvinced that things would have played out in such a manner. But my insistence on seeing people of two hundred years ago as different might in itself be the problem here. Certainly, as the life of William Dawes – or Daniel Rookes, as he becomes in The Lieutenant – shows, new settlers’ treatment of blacks did cause deep unrest in white people at the time. Perhaps this is Grenville’s project: to suggest that empathy and largeness of spirit are not a product of modernity, as we might like to think. While there is no doubting the complexity of the task of reimagining history, and the inevitability that the novelist may get something wrong – a fact, some tone – this act of re-entering the past is an important one. Grenville’s extraordinary trilogy is a major achievement in Australian literature.