No doubt it will come as a strange observation to make about an experienced author’s work, and it’s not the way I expected to respond to a book by one of my all-time favourite novelists, but Kate Grenville’s latest book, Sarah Thornhill, reads a bit like a debut novel. It comes with too strong a sense of a writer needing to get something off her chest, and the plot goes quite awry, especially at the end.
So what went wrong?
Well, firstly, there is much that went right. I read this novel straight through in four hours not willing to put it down. Kate Grenville writes beautifully, evoking the era with great skill and authenticity. She is a master of characterisation and her settings are superb. The voice of Sarah as narrator and central character is honest and true, and Grenville’s rendition of the idiom of an uneducated but intelligent woman was completely convincing.
Sarah Thornhill has its genesis in Kate Grenville’s own family history, and it’s the story of William Thornhill’s daughter. His transition from convict to colonist formed the basis of The Secret River, one of my all-time favourite books. (I read it before I started this blog, so there is no review of it here). Like The Secret River this novel is set along the Hawkesbury River during the period when the indigenous people were being displaced and dispersed, so the story is a catalyst for exploring the moral ambiguities of European settlement: a great opportunity for the poor and dispossessed of Britain, achieved at the expense of the original owners of the land.
The characterisation of Sarah and her coming-of-age is terrific. She’s a wilful, uncompromising young woman whose curiosity and lack of tact causes awkwardness that doesn’t suit her stepmother’s plans for her to be a ‘lady’. It’s not just that she refuses to ride side-saddle, she also falls in love with a man of part-Aboriginal parentage, which doesn’t suit Ma’s social ambitions at all. Some of the best, most authentic dialogue in the book occurs when Ma’s inadequately suppressed prejudice finally explodes in a barrage of racist remarks.
But Sarah seems immune from attitudes that are commonly associated with this era. She’s a ‘currency lass’, i.e. the daughter of an ex-convict, and she represents a new kind of Australian. She doesn’t have a family history of belonging in her own country, but that makes her free to reinvent what a person of her class might be. Her father and stepmother never speak of that convict past and Sarah, cocooned on the frontier where nearly all in her social circle have suppressed a similar past, hasn’t learned that it’s a significant social stigma elsewhere. Indeed, the shortage of available women in that era meant that her sister could make a good marriage notwithstanding. So Sarah rejects her stepmother’s pretensions and she doesn’t share her prejudices either.
Grenville renders frontier life with authenticity and empathy. Sarah’s transition from feisty young woman to tamed pioneer bride reminds us of the appalling loneliness of early settlers: she is almost entirely dependant on her new husband for company and can’t afford to alienate him. Her fears that she may not be able to deal with sickness and childbirth are exacerbated by the isolation of the farm, a three-day journey from anywhere over tracks so rough that no pregnant woman could expect to get any help. There are days of endless manual labour, and a monotonous diet of mutton and potatoes. And for illiterate Sarah, there is not even the consolation of reading, and she is too proud to acknowledge that she would like to learn.
But Sarah does learn shame, and that is because in spite of her acute observations about many things, she fails to see that there are different kinds of love and affection; that others beyond her immediate acquaintance or imagination can be hurt by her self-centred actions; and that the wealth and comfort her successful father has provided is built upon the dispossession of others, and worse. She goes to extraordinary lengths to make reparation, learning that sometimes symbolic gestures can start the healing process.
That is, as Grenville would have it…
It was only after I finished the book and began reflecting on it that I began to have doubts. It’s easy to make links between Grenville’s preoccupations in this book with issues of Reconciliation and Apology, and that’s a worthy aim. What is problematic is that the ‘secret’ which stains Thornhill’s present far more than his convict past is too obvious for anyone with more than a passing awareness of frontier violence in Australia. The reader guesses long before Sarah finds out what that dark secret is …
I was also a bit bothered by the representation of the dispossessed Indigenous People solely as silent, passive recipients of charity, albeit rendered with dignity and compassion. While I have no doubt that Kate Grenville has researched extensively for this novel, and the exact time period isn’t clear, this passivity doesn’t seem consistent with the history of resistance by the Dhurag (Darug) and Darkinjung Peoples in the Hawkesbury area. For all I know it may be historically accurate, but the depiction of these frontier Aborigines as cowed and helpless doesn’t feel right, not these days when so much has been revealed about how much sustained resistance there actually was.
But it’s the segment in New Zealand that defies credibility. From the invitation to the journey to the bathos of the welcome ceremony it’s a mess. Whatever the intention, contrasting a still-thriving Maori culture in New Zealand with a faltering Aboriginal culture reinforces the obsolete idea that their culture was dying, and conflating the tragedy of Stolen Children is an awkward plot device which seemed to me to have no genuine rationale.
It’s difficult to discuss this without giving spoilers, so I’ll content myself with wondering whether the fierce and warlike Maori, legendary for their hostile reception of invaders, would have been as accepting of any interlopers – much less these particular ones – as represented in this book. And while Truth and Reconciliation has to start somewhere, it beggars belief that any human being would absolve the transgressions against them as readily as in this plot. The only human, rational immediate response to what was done by both transgressors is anger. Justifiable, sustained anger for sins that can’t be absolved with tattoos and tears. The response depicted simply doesn’t work at all.
Kate Grenville was featured on Meet an Aussie Author in September 2010.
BTW Sarah Thornhill is billed as the sequel to The Secret River , and the third in Grenville’s ‘Colonial’ trilogy but the storyline is entirely self-contained so IMO there is no need to read the other two first. However, whatever my reservations about this one, if you haven’t read The Secret River (which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and was nominated for the Booker, or The Lieutenant, (see my review) of course, I recommend them both!)
PS April 1 2012
*chuckle* Dear me, I must have got it wrong, because this novel has been longlisted for the Miles Franklin.
Author: Kate Grenville
Title: Sarah Thornhill
Publisher: Text Publishing. 2011
ISBN: 9781921758621 (hardback, first edition)
Source: Personal library, purchased at Dymocks at the Melbourne Writers Festival, $39.95