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.
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