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

“This is not normal”

The 45th parliament is sinking under a barrage of sleaze

Image of artist Ben Quilty

Ben Quilty: the art of unease

Ahead of a major survey at the Art Gallery of SA, the artist talks about the anxiety that informs his work

Illustration

Formal night in Gunnedah

Not even a drought can stop this NSW country town’s night of nights

Image of Scott Morrison

No sign of Closing the Gap

Scott Morrison needs put his words about working in partnership with Indigenous Australia into action


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

Still from The Front Runner

The spectacle of a political scandal: Jason Reitman’s ‘The Front Runner’ and Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Loro’

New films about ’80s presidential hopeful Gary Hart and Italy’s controversial Silvio Berlusconi both miss the mark

Image of Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks

Pete Shelley’s Buzzcocks: 40 years on

The history and legacy of a punk pioneer

Image of Les Murray

Les Murray’s magisterial ‘Collected Poems’

How to approach a 736-page collection by Australia’s greatest poet?

Image of a bushfire

Fair judgement without surrender: Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Arsonist’

The author of ‘The Tall Man’ tries to understand the motivations of a Black Saturday firebug


More in Noted

The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at QAGOMA

Politics, culture and colour collide in Brisbane

Still from The Cry

ABC TV’s ‘The Cry’

This Scottish–Australian drama successfully subverts the missing-child genre

Image of Henri Matisse, A Game of Bowls, 1908

‘Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

From Matisse to Malevich: a considered snapshot of adventurous Russian collecting

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

For their Netflix debut, the Coen brothers return to the Western


Read on

Image of artist Ben Quilty

Ben Quilty: the art of unease

Ahead of a major survey at the Art Gallery of SA, the artist talks about the anxiety that informs his work

Image of Scott Morrison

No sign of Closing the Gap

Scott Morrison needs put his words about working in partnership with Indigenous Australia into action

Image from ‘Camping’

Unhappy ‘Camping’

Lena Dunham’s new comedy series is an accidental portrait of toxic femininity

Image from ‘Russian Doll’

A bug in the code: ‘Russian Doll’

This existential comedy is 2019’s first must-see Netflix series


×
×