September 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Sarah Thornhill’ by Kate Grenville

By Delia Falconer

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.

In The Secret River, the strongest of the trio, Grenville traces the anatomy of a massacre on the Hawkesbury River, from cordial coexistence between self-made waterman William Thornhill and his property’s traditional owners through to growing tension and its horrible conclusion. Significantly, she tracks beyond this point, to Thornhill’s sense – almost a postcolonial one – that the land he has won is now creepily unsettled. “For all that it was what he had chosen,” he thinks, surveying his tainted view through a telescope, it “felt at times like a punishment”.

Grenville’s book was a personal one, Thornhill based on her ancestor Solomon Wiseman (after whom Wisemans Ferry is named). It also has an oddly personal resonance for me, my family having long ties to the Hawkesbury. Having spent childhood weekends on drives to Windsor and Richmond, my nostalgia for their colonial tollbooths and rich alluvial cabbage-fields is now irretrievably darkened (a good thing) by Grenville’s book.

The Lieutenant told the story of kindly Daniel Rooke, a fictionalised First Fleet officer William Dawes, whose notebooks recording Eora language were discovered in the 1970s. Again, Grenville creates a man less an embodiment of his time than a rather modern political consciousness – who, on the boat out, recognises that he was “obliged to become part of the mighty imperial machine”.

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. (“They called us the Colony of New South Wales … We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves.”) Grenville gives her a likeable, robust voice; not quite historical but engaging the reader with historically rooted urgency.

Sarah loves Jack, the son of a neighbouring colonist and local Aboriginal woman. But their relationship is overshadowed by Sarah’s father’s terrible past, and news that her beloved brother, a sailor, has fathered a child in New Zealand with a Maori woman before drowning at sea. William bullies Jack into bringing her to Australia, with desperately unhappy results (Grenville thus giving her vision of local damage global dimensions). Though Sarah slowly, touchingly, rebuilds her life as another man’s wife, this new generation of harm will eventually call for an extraordinary – perhaps implausible – act of reconciliation on her part.

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. Like its predecessors, Sarah Thornhill will be welcomed by many readers as just the story we need now; others may prefer a less comforting, more ambiguous version of the past.

Delia Falconer
Delia Falconer is a novelist, journalist and non-fiction writer. She is the editor of The Best Australian Stories 2008 and 2009. Her books include The Service of Clouds, The Penguin Book of the Road and Sydney.

'Sarah Thornhill', By Kate Grenville, Text, 304pp; $39.95
Cover: September 2011

September 2011

From the front page

Snap back

The PM thinks the economy will rebound, but that’s not likely

Northern exposure

COVID-19 is turning Indigenous communities into a tinderbox

Three disasters, a wedding and a funeral

Reckoning with family in times of drought, fire and flood

Image of Julian Assange

Viral injustice

Julian Assange’s extradition trial continues as an attack on journalism


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Helmut Newton and Alice Springs

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Triple zero’s emergency

Why dialling ‘000’ may not save your life

'Her Father’s Daughter', By Alice Pung, Black Inc., 256pp; $29.95

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ by Alice Pung

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Order is everything

The state library of Victoria’s card catalogue


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Stormzy

Grime boss: Stormzy

The rapper and MC’s second album ‘Heavy Is the Head’ is another triumphant step bringing black British culture forward

Photograph of Tennant Creek Brio artists by Jesse Marlow / Institute

Desert bloom: The Tennant Creek Brio

The brazen art movement born out of the troubled legacies of substance abuse and dispossession

Cover of jenny Offill's ‘Weather’

Twilight knowing: Jenny Offill’s ‘Weather’

The American novelist brings literary fiction’s focus on the interior life to climate-change cataclysm

Image from ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

Properly British: Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

A multicultural vision underscores the acclaimed British satirist’s endearing Dickensian romp


More in Noted

Image of Eimear McBride's ‘Strange Hotel’

‘Strange Hotel’ by Eimear McBride

A woman unceasingly travels to contend with the inertia of grief, in the latest novel from the author of ‘A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing’

‘Actress’ by Anne Enright

In a theatre setting, the masterly Irish writer considers the melting, capricious line between the truth and the fake

Image from ‘Stateless’

‘Stateless’: ABC

A probing drama about Australia’s mandatory detention regime focuses on the dehumanisation experienced on both sides of the razor wire

Image of ‘The Bass Rock’

‘The Bass Rock’ by Evie Wyld

The Miles Franklin–winning author’s latest novel expands on her interest in the submission and consequential fury of women amid the impersonal natural world


Read on

Northern exposure

COVID-19 is turning Indigenous communities into a tinderbox

Image of Julian Assange

Viral injustice

Julian Assange’s extradition trial continues as an attack on journalism

Image of Sarah Aiken

Wage fright

COVID-19 isolation rules have seen artists’ livelihoods disappear

Opposing forces

Even during a time of crisis, history shows that partisan politics has a role to play


×
×