Combined Reviews: Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville

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SarahThornhill-aus-cover.jpg    Sarah Thornhill
Kate Grenville
Text Publishing

[This novel has been longlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Award.]

From the publisher's page:
From the beginning Jack and I was friends. Somehow our way of looking at things fitted together.

He never called me Dolly, the way the others did, only my full and proper name.

Sarah Thornhill is the youngest child of William Thornhill, convict-turned-landowner on the Hawkesbury River. She grows up in the fine house her father is so proud of, a strong-willed young woman who's certain where her future lies.

She's known Jack Langland since she was a child, and always loved him.

But the past is waiting in ambush with its dark legacy. There's a secret in Sarah's family, a piece of the past kept hidden from the world and from her. A secret Jack can't live with. A secret that changes everything, for both of them.

Kate Grenville takes us back to the early Australia of The Secret River and the Thornhill family. This is Sarah's story. It's a story of tangled secrets, a story of loss and unlooked-for happiness, and a story about the silent spaces of the past.

This powerful novel will enthrall readers of Kate Grenville's bestselling The Secret River, winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.


Stella Clarke in "The Australian": "The novel is simply and beautifully narrated. Sarah tells it as it might be thought or spoken, in bits of sentences. She is illiterate but highly observant, sensitive to the splendour of her surroundings on the Hawkesbury River. Staying within the limits of Sarah's immaturity and understanding, the historical lineaments of the time remain indeterminate, slowed to the pace of domestic life...Grenville's three novels have been deluged by commentary on her treatment of the Australian past, over and above discussion of their merits...She found herself on perilous ground following the success of The Secret River, when historian Mark McKenna pilloried her for historical hubris, along with critics like me for not being critical...In recent years, a forest of journalistic and academic work has rehearsed and extended the original spat. (Just last year, for example, Rodopi Press published Australian National University academic Kate Mitchell's Australia's "Other" History Wars: Trauma and the Work of Cultural Memory in Kate Grenville's The Secret River.) The novel, with associated commentary, turned up on educational curriculums. In the history v fiction debate, Grenville is totemic."

Belinda Mckeon in "The Guardian": "It is with often marvellous vividness and clarity that Grenville evokes Sarah's world, from childhood on the Hawkesbury, through an adolescence of idealistic love, to a marriage towards which she goes with a resigned heart but of which she ultimately makes a fine hand. Sarah is well inhabited by her creator, and through the eyes of this young woman, the physical and cultural strangenesses of a nation still clambering into existence spring richly to life. But the much-signposted secrets ride roughshod over this character rather than drawing her compellingly on; they take too much of the narrative's oxygen for Sarah ever to be able to negotiate towards them a convincing relationship. Their elements and repercussions come to seem stockpiled rather than layered. The attention given to their many constituent parts can seem hasty or rushed: there is a lost brother about whom the reader can barely care, and a secret child who is introduced and abandoned too quickly. Most problematically, there is a journey far afield that would seem almost epic in its importance to Sarah, and in its demands as a plot point, and yet which is over within a matter of pages, dispatched before it has even begun. Sarah Thornhill, a character of great spirit and determination, surely deserves more."

Delia Falconer in "The Monthly": "Each of the three books in Kate Grenville's loose trilogy - The Secret River (2005), The Lieutenant (2008) and now Sarah Thornhill - is an act of atonement. Each recognises the damage done to Indigenous Australians by Sydney's colonisation, and writes a sincere 'sorry' back into the past...Less bound to the historical record, Sarah Thornhill is an instantly warmer, less wistful book. Its narrator, Sarah, youngest child of The Secret River's William, possesses an independent-mindedness that anticipates the modern scepticism toward empire that would enter our history books in the 1980s...Grenville's great strength is her sensual fleshing-out of the past, the Hawkesbury's lovely 'surge and bubble'. Her vision of our colonial history is at once compelling and fable-like, as she writes contemporary white self-knowledge back into it."

Mark Sanderson in "The Telegraph": "Kate Grenville's novel covers much the same ground - physically and mentally - as her award-winning The Secret River. It is a tale of white versus black in the early days of New South Wales, a time of 'cruelties and crimes, miseries on every side'...Grenville's aim is to give a voice to her forebears and show how they and their country fought for an identity. 'They called us the Colony of New South Wales,' says Sarah. 'I never liked that. We wasn't new anything. We was ourselves.' Her wonderful account shows how hard it can be simply to be yourself."

Arifa Akbar in "The Independent": "Thornhill's crime, Sarah's guilt and her siblings' blindness, so Grenville's novel implies, is the nation's. There is one Thornhill sibling who rejects his family's wealth and lives among the wronged. This, like Sarah's final act, seems like the noble, and the most difficult, way to atone. If fault is to be found, then it is Sarah's unconflicted acceptance of her inherited guilt, though this is also what makes her heroic...The book is also about the confused identities of colonisers...It is both brilliant fiction and illuminating personal history."


Michael Cathcart on ABC Radio Natonal's "Books and Arts Daily" program.
Stephanie Cross in "The Independent".
Andrew Williams on the Metro website.
Eileen Battersby in "The Irish Times".


See this essay, "The Strangeness of the Dance: Kate Grenville, Rohan Wilson, Inga Clendinnen and Kim Scott" by Alison Ravenscroft on the "Meanjin" website.

Kate Grenville introduces Sarah Thornhil:

You can read what the author has to say about the book, including the background, excerpts and "Notes for Book Groups".

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 19, 2012 9:10 AM.

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