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Imagined Futures with James Bradley, Jonathan Lethem, Emily St John Mandel & David Mitchell

Ashley Hay was given a hard task with these four authors, whose works feature dystopian or alternate worlds, those ‘imagined futures’. Not because of the authors themselves, of course, but because there was so much to unpack from each book’s weighty vision of our imperilled future.
Chronic City by Jonathan LethemJonathan Lethem is an American writer who, after early science fiction works, won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1999 for his novel Motherless Brooklyn. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship (‘Genius Grant’). Chronic City is not his most recent work, but its story set in a strange version of New York in which a large tiger destroys buildings and a grey fog envelops part of the city, made him a worthy addition to the panel. The novel was named one of The New York Times’s ten best novels of 2009.

In response to Hay’s question to each of the panel, about what made their stories imperative when they wrote them, Jonathan Lethem spoke of his amazement and rage at the post-9/11 atmosphere that had taken (re-taken?) over New York City, where money had ‘gauzed over’ that horrific and galvanising event. There was ‘a fog of amnesiac displacement’. After 9/11 the city had looked both outward and inward, at the causes of the attack, questioning American geo-political stances. And here it was, only 3 years later, and it had been swept away by greed and the mighty dollar. Chronic City was a response to that.

David Mitchell, author of the genre-bending The Bone Clocks (my review here), said the original idea was to follow the life of a single 75 year old person in ‘micro stories’, with one for each year of her life. He soon realised, however, that writing from the point of view of a new born baby was ‘problematic’(!), and thus opted for a novella per decade. He wanted to explore time, deep time, and asked himself what you would pay for a Faustian pact to avoid mortality.

Station Eleven by Emily St John MandelCanadian Emily St John Mandel’s acclaimed novel Station Eleven was a finalist in the 2014 National Book Award (US). Her earlier work was in the area of crime fiction, and she said she wanted to break free from that area before she was pigeon-holed. Her story follows an amateur theatre group travelling the countryside after a flu pandemic has wiped out 99% of the population. When she began thinking about a post-apocalyptic world, she figured that the disaster wouldn’t last forever. Her novel deals not with the pandemic but with the aftermath.

Clade by James BradleyI read James Bradley’s Clade earlier this year (not reviewed). It’s a novel of ambition, following one family over three generations, well into the future, in a vastly changed environment. It has some wonderful writing, and some disturbing environmental catastrophes. He set out to write a novel of climate change, a subject that is ‘very resistant to fiction’. He wanted to link large geological time with a human story, one that had both continuity and rupture. His story echoes Mandel’s in this way, because while the world falls apart life goes on.

Hay asked whether the Dark Ages were an inspiration for any of the writers. Mandel said she didn’t need to look back. There was enough ‘economic ruination’ in post-GFC America for inspiration as to how things might look and feel.

Bradley spoke of the decline in species numbers, particularly in birds. He noted the massive decline in bee numbers. Lots of things that scientists had said were markers of real tipping points, things he put in the book, have worryingly come to pass in recent months, from the release of methane from Siberian permafrost to a change in the earth’s rotation as the result of ice melting at the poles.

Lethem also spoke to birds and how we have become disconnected from the wild in cities, giving the example of some New Yorkers’ reactions to a single red-tailed hawk, which built a nest on a co-op building in New York. Some occupants of the building were happy to see it, whereas others felt it diminished the value of their homes and wanted rid of it.

Jonathan LethemLethem then spoke of one of the most disturbing things I think I’ve ever heard. After 9/11, once the twin towers’ scrap metal had been sifted through for remains,, the metal was melted down and used to build an aircraft carrier, which was subsequently used in the Gulf War. It was as if the USA were taking the graves of all those lost and using them as a ‘sword with which it could smite’ the country’s perceived enemies. How could this type of thing happen? He recalled seeing this same aircraft carrier sail into New York Harbour some years later, and the response in his heart to seeing this weapon of war.

The World Witout Us by Alan WeismanMitchell entered the discussion here, tying together some of the other panellists’ thoughts, by asking if anyone had read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which explores the way nature reclaims and regenerates if it is left to its own devices,, and which Mitchell declared as excellent. Birds, he said, fare very well; the descendants of dinosaurs survive and thrive if and when humanity finally loses its foothold on the planet.

The Bone Clocks by David MitchellMitchell was asked by Hay about his uber novel, and rather than say he is ‘inking-in his large sheet of paper like a map’, as he did the night before, he said simply, ‘I’m not that clever,’ but he did admit to planning ahead a little more than he had in the past, placing some of his characters in ‘scenarios’, including Marinus, one of his favourites. So maybe there is a little more of the map being inked behind the scenes, so to speak.

Did actors, which appeared in several of the novels, asked Hay, provide the authors with an element of ‘performance’ they were seeking, or some sort of subterfuge? Mandel thought all characters are actors in a way. She had no specific reason for her choice other than her own experience with people she knew in off-off-off-Broadway(!) amateur theatre companies, in which to be a part meant you really loved the art because there was no way you were ever going to be paid for it. Her story did, however, feature a comic book, which allowed her extra freedom because she could use different language in it, words that characters wouldn’t.

Lethem made the point that while his book features a sit-com actor, he is an actor rather than an artist. Bradley said there is a merging of real and virtual worlds. He spoke about what was for me one of the most interesting things in his book, so-called ‘sims’, in which photos and videos and other visual records of a person are made into simulations of the person after they die so their loved ones can still interact with them. The sims are fitted with learning algorithms that allow them to learn how to better respond to their loved ones. So you can have these walking ghosts in your house. But the technology also allows loved ones to massage the sims, meaning they can wipe out the ‘bad’ traits of the person who has died! In a way, the sims provide us with a way of reincarnating us. But, like in Mitchell’s work, they are very poor representations of real humans. Something very important is lost in their construction. It’s not a way to truly live.

Hay raised the notion of hope. Is there a place for it? She liked to think there was a place for it in all of the novels. I didn’t take too many notes here, so I’d advise listening to the podcast when it becomes available, but in each of Mitchell, Bradley and Mandel’s work there is a note of hope at the end. You’ll have to read the Lethem to find out what he thinks!

It was an excellent session, with the wonderful Ashley Hay doing a sterling job: see my Saturday ‘Thumbs’ below for more on her…

Ben Okri: The Age of Magic

The Age of Magic by Ben OkriWinner of the Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road (which I loved), Ben Okri’s latest novel The Age of Magic follows eight people on a journey to make a film documentary about Arcadia. I dearly wanted to see Okri in another session with two acclaimed Australian poets: Les Murray and David Malouf, but that session clashed with another I attended, so instead I saw him in discussion with Radio National’s Michael Cathcart, talking about The Age of Magic. The session is available to listen to online at Radio National here.

I highly recommend it. Okri is such a pleasure to listen to: measured, scholarly and playful. He read from the book and some poetry too.

Cathcart opened up by asking what a ‘quilf’ (spelling?) is. Okri said it’s ‘an imaginary real creature’ that the novel is loosely structured around. He experienced on a walk in Switzerland. They never appear before you, but ‘hover at the margin of your vision’. Such a spirit-being makes two ‘appearances’ in Okri’s novel. He later said he tries to capture the extra dimensionality of life.

The Age of Magic has several premises, said Okri. One is the idea that while we live in an age of historical times, there is also a constant ‘under-river of consciousness and being’, a magical fabric to the whole of existence. He wanted to touch upon this magic that underlies our existence. The more ostensible is eight people going to Arcadia to make a film documentary. But don’t be fooled! It’s all about the secret premise.

‘Eviling’: an anti-magical activity that is used in the story. There are real characters and liminal characters. It is full of aphorisms.

The book opens with a chapter comprised of a single sentence: ‘Some things only become clear much later.’ This began as a three page chapter, and he compressed and compressed it into one sentence which has ‘all the power of everything that has been removed’. Okri playfully admonished Cathcart for reading out this sentence too quickly, and then read it out ‘as it should be read’, which was very slowly!

One character says ‘it’s easier to be clever than to listen’. Listening, said Okri, is ‘quite close to suffering’. Learning to write is about ‘very, very deep listening’. There are three levels of listening: ordinary, deep, and ‘shockingly profound’! You have to listen. Not just to what is said, but also to what is not said. Listening stands in for ‘profound attentiveness’. Okri said ‘I’m a world listener’.

One character, Jim, believes, as we believe, that will is the key thing in life. And yes, civilisations can’t be built without will. But will alone is madness. We need something higher than will/ego.

Okri is fascinated by the making of language. ‘Live’ turned around is ‘evil’. Live is an active presence of life. Evil is the opposite of anti-growing aspect of life.

Cathcart noted there are several references to Faust in the novel. Okri said: that which we go towards compels us to change. If we are on a quest for money, money changes us. The same is true for any journey. That’s why all quest novels are about the inward journey as much as the outward journey. In the middle of Faust, there is a play about Arcadia, so it cohered with the story.

Cathcart asked about radiance, which seems an important element in Okri’s body of work. Radiance is a very difficult thing to write about, but is the necessary flip slip to the darkness. Every writer should write the other side of the coin to their principal theme. We are very focussed on suffering. There was great happiness in his childhood even when there was great suffering. There’s something about childhood afternoons that make them feel like twenty years, the glow of them in Nigeria. There is something enchanting about being life, but enchantment must come through very briefly in writing.

Okri was asked about yoga and meditation. He meditates, if meditation means to think. In the East, Zen masters talk about emptiness. In the West, we think too much, fill our heads with thoughts. We must empty our minds. Emptiness is the place from which creation comes.

One childhood experience he related was about telling stories. He grew up in a story-telling universe. Everything at that age oozed stories. A tree, a dog, even a car can drip stories. In the village, the children sat in a circle and told stories but each child had to invent a story. If you couldn’t tell some original you were kicked out of the group!

His period of homelessness in the UK, where his university founding ran dry all of a sudden and he became poor and destitute very quickly. He still managed to read and have books close to him. Reading keeps hunger at bay. You could just fall through the net in this world and nothing would catch you. This period seeded in him an understanding of need, which fuelled his Booker Prize win ten years later. ‘I wrote my way back into life’.

He was asked about Nigerian and English story-telling, whether he was synthesising both. Yes, but Nigeria needs a new kind of language to capture it. He spent years trying to find the right tone and language. He went right back to basic A-B-C, so he could use words to ‘touch’ the world. It is the weakness of the 19th century novel that it cannot capture the non-linearity of modern life.

Asked about the pressure African writers are under, he said they should not be bound to write solely the troubled African stories, of suffering, famine, bad government and so on. The writer’s primary domain is freedom, the ability to write about what they want. France has a great literary tradition, as does the UK, where there is joy as well as suffering. Publishers also constrain African writers, he said, pigeon-holing them as ‘cause’ or ‘issue’ writers, which he finds deeply unfair.

He was also asked about winning the ‘Bad Sex in Fiction Award’, which he explained away quite beautifully by saying the English are too uptight about sex!

Book Design, or ‘Architects of Reading’

Kudos to festival organisers for including a session on book design once again, one of my personal favourites, although it was a vastly different topic than previous years, which usually focussed on the winning designs in the annual Book Design Awards. The session was entitled ‘Architects of Reading’, and focussed on the future form of books. Poor Zoë Sadokierski spent much of the session keeping the book design institution that is WH Chong (Text Publishing) from warring with Google’s Tom Uglow about physical books versus books that might, in future, become more like apps. And not just apps, because Uglow foresees the technology allowing the story to change based on the reader’s activity. He also gave the example of a story about deception, in which every time you went back to the ‘novel’ it would change on you, or deceive you, allowing the story’s form to mirror theme. Chong said this verged on becoming a ‘video game’. Not surprisingly, Chong championed the physical book, with its ‘perfect technology’. It’s a hugely interesting area for discussion, and I would have liked more on it, but was happy to see an example of Chong’s vast marginalia!

Saturday ‘Thumbs’

Thumbs down for: an unnamed writer on one panel session whose reading went on, and on, and on… I mean the writing was good, but as an audience member you just want a little taste, particularly if there are other writers on a panel you want to hear from.

Thumbs up for: Ashely Hay. What a gem she is, a fabulous writer in her own right and a great chair of a rather large panel. She got the best out of four people in under an hour, and also fielded a rather curly question from a young girl in the audience who asked her, much to everyone’s amusement, which of the four novels was her favourite and which she would recommend to a girl of her age! Cue much squirming from Hay under the mock stare of intensity from all four writers waiting to see which of them she would select, but after much sighing she somehow managed to pick one (Mandel’s book) without upsetting anyone!

Next up, Sunday at the festival…

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SWF LogoOne of my favourite sessions at each year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival is the session on book design, which typically follows the Australian Publisher Association’s Book Design Awards night. This year was no different, with some engaging presentations from award winners as well as the added perspective of design from a publisher’s point-of-view, in this instance from Helen Boyle.

Book design is such a crucial part of getting books into the hands of readers. The old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ might well be true of people, but it’s certainly not true of books – as Boyle noted. I think we need to put a spotlight on the tremendously creative people who create the not just the face of our books but the entire look and feel of them, cover to cover. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner - designer Allison Colpoys

The first talk was by the charming Allison Colpoys, a freelance book designer and illustrator, whose slide on the creative process was hilarious (including one section whose name I can’t repeat and another called ‘panic’. It provided a great framework for discussing the process she went through in designing Penguin’s Australian Children’s Classic series, which won the award for Best Designed Children’s Series.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay - designer Allison ColpoysShe described the limited colour palette that was chosen to give the series a vintage look and feel, and commented that the vintage look was becoming more widespread in book design. There are ten works in the Penguin series, and she showed the rules for colour, text panels, as well as icons and section break ‘dinkuses’. She showed some of the options developed for Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Allison also showed two of the new additions to the series, A Fortunate Life and The Power of One.

Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth - designer Allison ColpoysAllison was also the joint winner of the award for Best Designed Literary Fiction Book for her cover for Sufficient Grace by Amy Elspeseth, with its striking shadowed trees and drips of blood. It really sets a mood for the story and wants you to pick up the book.

Things I Love by Megan Morton - by Lantern BooksOur next speaker was Daniel New from Lantern Books. He also spoke about series design, offering six categories, from brand series (such as Penguin orange classics), through figurative (think Peter Carey’s newer covers), to genre conventions, to decorative, to conceptual (such as Penguin’s blank white covers that asked readers to draw their own covers and send them into Penguin), to creative partnerships.

Evi Oetomo from Lantern won the Best Designed General illustrated Book for Things I Love. One of the elements of good one-off cover design, Daniel said, is the notion it could easily be made into a series. He offered several images of potential titles in the series that used Things I Love‘s design as the template. Very interesting.

We then heard from Helen, from Templar UK, who backed up what I’ve been hearing at these sessions for the last three years, namely that book design is increasingly important in the digital age, particularly in the thumbnail version of the cover design. She spoke about some trends in UK publishing, particularly in YA fiction, with a predominance of black covers. Ironically, she noted, the ones that have white covers stand out much more now next to their black-faced neighbours, a fact she proved with a shot of a stand of such books.

The Voyage by Murray Bail - designer WH ChongThis sense of trends in cover design was picked up by our final speaker, WH Chong, who has been working for Text Publishing for ‘twenty years’, and is responsible for many of the covers we all know, such as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and all seventy(!) covers for the Text Classic series. Chong was the other joint winner of the Best Designed Literary Fiction Book, for his cover for Murray Bail’s critically acclaimed The Voyage. He was also inducted into the Joyce Thorpe Nicholson Design Hall of Fame last night. That there are only seven others who have received such an honour speaks volumes for Chong’s work over many years. A hearty congratulations, Chong!

Sarah Thornhill By Kate GrenvilleChong spoke about Stephen Romei’s recent piece in The Australian on the prevalence of the backs of women in current fiction covers, and the debate over softening of books marketed toward women.

I was expecting him to go on to explore his cover for Sarah Thornhill but he went instead to other covers, exploring the question of publishers not wanting to show a face because it potentially creates an image in the mind of the reader as to what the heroine (or hero) looks like.

Stasiland by Anna Funder - designer WH ChongOne fabulously striking cover that slipped through this filtering was Stasiland by Anna Funder. Chong also mused about covers for Kate Holden, Madeleine St John, and one that we’ve all seen recently: Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, throwing up some international (Canadian and Taiwanese) versions to show how the local design has been translated overseas.

The Spare Room by Helen GarnerHe also mentioned Helen Garner’s quote at the recent Stella Prize award night, where she pined for a day when book “designers no longer reflexively put a picture of a vase of flowers or a teacup on a woman’s book cover, even when the book is about hypodermics and vomiting and rage and the longing to murder”.

Her most recent book is The Spare Room (my review), about a cancer sufferer and her carer friend – which Chong designed. It was an interesting discussion, and Chong at times questioned himself in an admirable way, believing it was not a reflexive image, but that it might have been trying to soften the theme for the audience (he offered up some mocked alternatives of possible covers showing angst and suffering which provided a stark alternative from a marketing/aesthetic point-of-view. It’s not easy selling a book whose front image is one of suffering.

And of course selling is want authors want, what publishers want, want the marketing departments want, and what is front and centre in all design briefs given to our book designers. No pressure then!

The Secret River by Kate GrenvilleI was going to ask Chong about the different briefs he received for Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (a perfect cover in my view) and sequel Sarah Thornhill, books tied together by story and theme but receiving such different cover treatments. Alas, time was called before I had a chance to ask.

There is a huge amount of thought that goes into good book design. It is, of course, much more than just cover designs. But for a work of fiction the cover is the most important aspect of design. A successful cover is more than reflective of the book’s content or theme. It is a marketing tool, requiring careful positioning, focus groups, and the ability to turn heads. Our panel of talkers had this ability in spades. If you ever get a chance to attend this session at future SWFs then I’d highly recommend it.

Congratulations to all the book design award winners, which you can have a look at here.

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Sarah Thornhill By Kate GrenvilleAfter 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.

Sarah Thornhill By Kate Grenville - New CoverWhy 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.

Australian Women Writers 2013 badgeThis 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

2011

Text

304 pages

ISBN: 9781921758621

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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