Review Blog

Aug 08 2012

Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville

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Text, 2011, ISBN 9781921758515
(Ages: 13 - Adult) Highly recommended. Sarah Thornhill is a currency lass, one of the first generation of white settlers born in Australia, with an ex-convict father, William Thornhill, the main character in Secret River. The novel shows her growing from an impetuous child, secure in her family and home on the Hawkesbury, to a young woman who has to accept and live with the consequences of a brutal event in her father's life on the Hawkesbury. As a child Sarah becomes aware of secrets, a fourth brother who has rejected their father, their father's attempts to help a scarred aboriginal man, her step-mother's contempt for Sarah's friend Jack Langland. Sarah, or Dolly as she is called by her family, has always loved Jack and is determined to marry him when he can buy a farm. Will is drowned in New Zealand while sealing and at his father's insistence Jack brings his daughter, a Maori child, back to the Hawkesbury to be raised by the Thornhills. The child, newly named Rachel, clings to Jack but Jack is partly Aboriginal and leaves when Ma intervenes and reveals the secret from William Thornhill's past. Sarah compromises and find happiness in a marriage to a settler from west of the ranges. This is disturbed when Rachel dies, pregnant at thirteen and Pa suffers a stroke. Sarah now learns the truth about his involvement in a massacre of aboriginal people. In an attempt to expiate her guilt Sarah travels to New Zealand to explain Rachel's death to her Maori family. Sarah learns to understand the danger of cultural preconceptions and the shallowness of her own new culture, in comparison with the depth of Maori traditions.
Grenville attempts to capture the voice of the illiterate Sarah, but is not as successful in this as she is in describing landscape and relationships. Characters and places are acutely observed and imaginatively captured, and the plot moves quickly. The novel is a love story but is also about the journey of a young woman towards understanding the nature of family, the importance of the natural world and her struggle with the question and guilt that faces all new settlers in Australia. Who possesses this country? What should be done for the first peoples?
This book does stand alone, despite being a continuation of William Thornhill's story, and is highly recommended.
Jenny Hamilton

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