September 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Sarah Thornhill’ by Kate Grenville

By Delia Falconer
'Sarah Thornhill', By Kate Grenville, Text, 304pp; $39.95

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.

From the front page

Image of Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho. Image © Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Slow motions: Clint Eastwood’s ‘Cry Macho’

Despite patient filmmaking, the 91-year-old director’s elegiac feature is unable to escape the legend of the man

Image of The Sea of Hands, representing support for reconciliation and the rights of Indigenous Australians

The truth about truth-telling

Revisiting trauma is not the road to justice for Aboriginal people

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

An epic troll

Who is the government’s “anti-troll” law actually designed to protect?

Image of coal for export, Newcastle, NSW

The fossil-fuel industry’s grip on Australian hearts and minds

Is there hope that public misconceptions of the importance of coal and gas can be overcome?

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Riding high

The Toyota HiLux and the tradie’s new world

George Grosz, 'Suicide', 1916. Oil on canvas.© George Grosz/VG Bild-Kunst. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Republic of art

‘The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910–37’

Aided by Purves Environmental Fund, sculptor Mark Coreth rides his life-sized ice polar bear in Sydney, 3 June 2011. © Reuters/Daniel Munoz

The climate movement

Australia’s patrons of climate change activism

Shakespeare in Australia

Fred Schepisi’s ‘The Eye of the Storm’


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

Still from ‘No Time To Die’

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic

Abbotsford I

New poetry, after lockdowns


More in Noted

Cover of ‘Crossroads’

‘Crossroads’ by Jonathan Franzen

The acclaimed US author’s latest novel is a 1971 church drama modelled on ‘Middlemarch’

Still from ‘Yellowjackets’

‘Yellowjackets’

The US drama about teen plane-crash survivors is a heady mix of folk horror and high-school betrayal

Still from ‘New Gold Mountain’

‘New Gold Mountain’

SBS’s Australian goldfields series looks beyond colonial orthodoxies to tell the neglected stories

Cover of ‘The Magician’

‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín

The Irish novelist’s latest ponders creativity and the unacknowledged life of Thomas Mann


Online exclusives

Image of Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho. Image © Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Slow motions: Clint Eastwood’s ‘Cry Macho’

Despite patient filmmaking, the 91-year-old director’s elegiac feature is unable to escape the legend of the man

Image of Anthony Bourdain in Roadrunner. © Focus Features

End of the road: The Anthony Bourdain documentary ‘Roadrunner’

Morgan Neville’s posthumous examination of the celebrity chef hews close to the familiar narrative

Image of test cricket captain Tim Paine announcing his resignation. Image via ABC News

Cricketing institutions are on a sticky wicket

Tim Paine’s sexting scandal reveals more about institutional failures than personal ones

Craig Kelly addresses protestors outside Victoria's Parliament, 12 November 2021

At the end of our rope

The prime minister’s belated response to death threats against political leaders is a sign of our dangerously hollowed-out politics