After reading mixed reviews, I came to Sarah Thornhill, the sequel to Kate Grenville’s acclaimed The Secret River, with middling expectations. For the most part I was pleasantly surprised. I zipped through it, cosseted by an authentic voice and gripping story that explores how the past’s secrets shape the present, as well as the moral ambiguity of the complicity of first settler offspring in the troubled early history of New South Wales. The fact an ancestor of mine gets a mention (more on that later) probably sealed my admiration, but there are issues, some would say shortcomings, worth exploring.
In telling the story in first-person from illiterate Sarah’s point-of-view, Grenville has constructed a wonderful narrative voice. Right from the first page the voice hits perfect notes:
The Hawkesbury was a lovely river, wide and calm, the water dimply green, the cliffs golden in the sun, and white birds roosting in the trees like so much washing. … They called us the Colony of New South Wales. I never liked that. We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves.
I love the so much washing simile. Perfect. Also, note the sly exploration of ‘new’ versus the sense of ‘past’, which continues a few lines later: ‘You heard that a lot. Never looked back.’ The notion of not looking back was common back then, with emancipists creating names and pasts to avoid the stain of the broad (convict) arrow: ‘… money had a way of blunting the hard shapes of the past. Dressing it up in different words.’ On Sunday the Thornhills attend church where Sarah hears sermons that underscore the crux of her life’s story and the drama to come:
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.
Thornhill, Sarah’s Pa, has made good after being transported as a convict from London with Sarah’s mother, now dead. Sarah has a new Ma, a calculating woman who knows the secrets of the past, the value of appearances and how to put people in their place. Early on we see Thornhill sitting on his verandah as he was at the end of The Secret River (TSR), looking up to the ‘line of bush along the top of the cliffs. Nothing up there, only rocks and trees and sky, but he’d sit by the hour watching, the leather worn through to the brass [on his telescope] where his hand clamped round it.’ Those of us who have read TSR suspect what Thornhill is looking for but will never find. The detail of the handle worn through to the brass is spot on, so too the clenching hand.
As a girl, when Sarah tells Pa she can count her brothers on her hand, he corrects her count of three, telling her she has four. The one she doesn’t know goes by the name of Dick Blackwood rather than Dick Thornhill, a truth that burns in Pa’s eyes. When she asks him when Dick is coming back he flies into a rage.
Thornhill employs a two ‘blacks’ to look after the horses and the stables. A native boy chops wood. Thornhill instructs his cook to give food to other local natives whenever they call. And on the day Thornhill takes Sarah out for her first horse ride, they visit a clearing to give the local mob some food; she’s all questions, wanting to know why Pa is giving them food. Was it Christian duty? His face is twisted and he speaks of a day he wants back, but doesn’t elaborate. Later he talks of an old knife with a missing tip he bought in London; he wonders where the tip is and says: ‘Nothing ever gone, just you got to know where to look.’
Being a currency lass—a child born in New South Wales—Sarah’s world is a ‘place with no grannies and no grandpas. No aunties, no uncles. No past.’ And yet the cave she likes to retreat to has sand in it that has been there since the earth began. All she has of the past are remembered snatches of a song her real mother used to sing: ‘Oranges and lemons, say the bells of Saint Clement’s. You owe me five farthings, say the bells of Saint Martin’s.’ But this is London, her pa’s world. The lack of belonging haunts her; it haunts Grenville too, for she has admitted to a similar lack of belonging in her native Australia.
As Sarah grows up she is drawn to Jack Langland, who sails off for months at a time to New Zealand for sealing and then whaling with her older brother Will. Jack is a half-caste—or ‘half-darkie’ as Sarah puts it—with a white father and Aboriginal mother. In turn, Jack is drawn to Sarah. Her longing for a man who goes off for so long is palpable. Their forbidden relationship will be shaped by events of the past in a way Sarah cannot conceive.
Reminiscent of the convict Margaret Catchpole in Carol Birch’s Scapegallows, Sarah is a wonderful character. Both sharp and headstrong, they eschew the side saddle for the normal saddle, and their wilfulness gets them into strife. One qualm I had is with some early unevenness. Generally quick to pick up on things, Sarah can read the intentions of the two gentlemen who come to stay at their house, but at other times she is very slow on the uptake, particularly concerning Jack, Dick and Pa, two of whom she knows far better than men she’s just met. In short, I found some of her acuity selective, but only in the early parts.
After moving up to the frontier in what is now the Cessnock area, Sarah overhears drovers boasting of a massacre of Aboriginals. It makes her start questioning things. She supposes there’s enough [land] for both black and white. But she’s not satisfied with this notion. ‘Fell asleep trying to balance things out. Blacks on the one side, us on the other. How could you make it right?’
Secrets bubble up from the past like a spring finding its way through rock. It takes time, but it gets to the surface in the end. How old secrets come to bear, how Thornhill and Sarah and Jack do things they ought not to have done and fail to do things they ought to have done, is convincing. The moral dilemma as and ambiguities are explored with a deft touch. Although other reviewers have had problems with what they see as a far-fetched resolution, I saw the plausible actions of someone who has been confronted with not just her pa’s failings but her own. She reacts with a rage and shame that drives her subsequent actions in a way that makes sense to me. Guilt does strange things to people, even more so when they’re of a good heart. Some have criticised the way the Maori welcome her into their community. However, she is the sister of a man who did find his way into the community, who was indeed, married into that community, so I didn’t have a problem with that either.
I attended a session at the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) in which Grenville discussed her three colonial-era novels. It was difficult, she said, to find anything in the written record of illiterate women of the period on which to base the voice (Sarah was born in 1816). It needed to be: plain, strong, with no large words. It came to her as she was hiking up a volcano in Auckland (cue much laughter about it being a religious experience!). For once did not have her notebook with her, just a pen and the paper bag her lunch came in. She wrote the synopsis of the novel and a draft of those first few lines on the paper bag. She brought it to show us (soon going into the National Library suggested session chair Ashley Hay!), after which she read those drafted lines. It was fabulous to see the document on which the genesis (if you’ll excuse the pun) of a novel came into being. Those first few lines, while a little different in the published work, survived pretty much intact over the – and I think I heard this right, though my ears didn’t believe it so I might have misheard – the 20-30(!) drafts she had to do.
When asked about the motivation for the two Thornhill books, she said: ‘Hidden things become toxic’ and shape behaviour down the generations. These secrets must be brought up the surface and confronted before we can move on. What happens when the secret comes out? That was the question she sought to answer in Sarah Thornhill. And to my mind at least, it was a question worth asking and one that I enjoyed discovering the answer to. She said she kept circling this family of stories, ‘like a moon around a planet’. It wasn’t surprising, then, to hear her say she doesn’t think she’s finished with this world yet.
Some readers have argued that the depiction of Aborigines as being meek victims paints too much of a one-sided picture of the white settler-black relations. Where are the blacks fighting back? Given the vast amount of research that Grenville had undertaken for both Thornhill novels, I don’t doubt that she knows of such things. So what’s going on? The aboriginal stable hands at Thornhill’s farm are indeed meek, yet this is plausible because their lives have been so reduced by working for Thornhill. They must know of Thornhill’s past. To work for such a man would cause a reduction of spirit that we can’t fathom.
What of the blacks fighting back against the white aggression that Sarah overhears? Being illiterate means she would not read the reports of black attacks on whites in the Sydney Gazette. And it makes sense that the men in her life who do read the Gazette don’t tell her of these attacks for fear of frightening her. It’s not Grenville being biased, it’s her characters.
The other criticism levelled at the book focusses on the resolution, which some consider too far fetched to be plausible. Without giving anything away, all I’ll say is that guilt does strange things to people. Given what she has discovered about her father and the realisation of her own shortcomings, I can believe that Sarah would go to extraordinary lengths to try and absolve herself. She has a good heart, and it is this kind of person that would react in this way. It may take a little suspension of disbelief, but for me at least Grenville had laid enough groundwork for me to indulge her.
There are slight spoilers in this paragraph so skip it if you don’t want to know: Why do the Maori welcome her? She is the aunt of their lost girl. She is the sister of the man they welcomed into their lives and community. According to wikipedia, sealers and whalers made over 170 voyages to New Zealand between 1800-1820 alone. Maori men often crewed the ships. Cross-pollination of people occurred. Perhaps the more important question is why Jack can’t perform the role Sarah is asked to perform in New Zealand. Maybe it is a woman-only role?.
WELCOME BACK… There has been some debate over the cover of the hardback edition, and I have to say, it looks very ‘feminine’. Although I’d like to say a man wouldn’t worry about such things, I’d say that many would. It’s not one I’m particularly drawn to. I have no idea whether this was done on purpose—to market the book toward readers of what is derisively termed ‘women’s fiction’ (which outsells ‘literary fiction’). The cover also strangely has what looks like a slightly larger font for the author’s name than the title. I’d love to know how much say Grenville had in the design.
Why does this matter? I for one wish it didn’t, but there are market segments and publishers market books to segments accordingly. Some have suggested Sarah Thornhill was less literary than TSR. I didn’t find that at all. I do wonder, though, whether other titles for the novel were considered. Interestingly, the paperback version’s cover, positioned to the left of this paragraph, is a lot different to the hardback version I have and nowhere near as feminine. Did the reaction to the initial cover force a change? Who knows. (Perhaps we were spoilt by the sublime cover of TSR, which, like the hardback cover for ST, was designed by WH Chong, who is also responsible for the Text Classics series of covers). What’s not in doubt is that Sarah Thornhill has sold very well, and deservedly so.
You don’t need to have read The Secret River to appreciate Sarah Thornhill. The sequel stands on its own. The risk of not reading TSR beforehand is that you find out what happens in it when reading the sequel, and after reading Sarah Thornhill you may want to go back and read its forebear, just to enjoy the craft of Kate Grenville.
My ancestor’s part? After moving to the Cessnock area, smack bang in middle of what will become the renowned vineyards of the Hunter Valley, Sarah is read ‘a piece out of the Gazette, some feller called Boland thought you could grow grapes round our way and make wine.’ This feller was John Augustine Boland, my great, great grandfather. He was the son of James Boland, an Irish convict sent out in 1832. My namesake John lived until the ‘ripe’ old age of 84, a pretty good innings for any era, but especially that one. He called his vineyard ‘Garden Hill’, and his death certificate has his occupation as ‘vigneron’. There are still many Bolands in the Hunter region today.
You’ll be pleased to know that vines still grow on the same land, now the home of Adina Vineyard, near the evocatively named ‘Deadman’s Creek’ on Lovedale Road, Lovedale, which is east of Pokolbin. My father’s cousin, a keeper of our extended family history, was shown around the vineyard by the current owners. She mentioned John Augustine’s name for the land and they said they might name a future wine after it, so if you ever see ‘Garden Hill’ wine in your local bottle shop, you’ll know the history of the name and how it ties back (ever so tenuously!) to Sarah Thornhill.
This intimacy brought home for me the thrust of Sarah’s story, how I am perhaps not too far away from those same stories and secrets. Who knows, maybe there’s a tale to be told out of John Augustine’s life too. There’s definitely one in James Boland. I best get researching… with a glass of a Hunter Valley wine in hand of course!
Lisa at ANZ LitLovers wasn’t enamoured of some plot elements in Sarah Thornhill. Read her thoughts here.
This review counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers challenge.
Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)