Sarah Thornhill - Kate Grenville
This is the third novel of Grenville’s trilogy set in the colony of New South Wales and links directly back to the first of those novels, [b:The Secret River|347698|The Secret River|Kate Grenville||1374275]. Sarah Thornhill is the narrator. The youngest daughter of the wealthy emancipated convict William Thornhill, she had not been born when her father participated in a massacre of local indigenous people near their settlement on the Hawkesbury River. Ignorant of her father’s past, Sarah falls in love with her brother’s friend, Jack Langland, the son of a white father and an indigenous mother. However, Sarah’s father’s secret will have a devastating effect on her life.

As she did in The Secret River, Grenville sensitively explores the difficult relationship between white settlers and the indigenous inhabitants in early 19th century New South Wales. She does not presume to tell the story from the point of view of the indigenous people, for that is not her story to tell. However, Grenville captures the colonial experience and, in telling Sarah’s story, particularly evokes the experiences of the first generation of those born to emancipated convicts - the so-called “currency lads and lasses” - who were looked down upon by free settlers and, unlike their parents, had nowhere other than the colony to think of as home.

At its heart, Grenville’s work focuses on how to deal with guilt, grief and loss, as Sarah strives to come to terms with the loss of her first love and the discovery of her father’s guilt. Her descriptions of the country in which the Thornhill family lives on the Hawkesbury River is evocative. This is what that area looks like, much the same today as it looked two hundred years ago.


Grenville’s portrayal of the life Sarah lives on the “frontier” – an area around the upper Hunter Valley – is equally evocative. This section of the novel was particularly meaningful for me, as I have ancestors – an emancipated Irish convict and his wife – who settled not far away. He was killed by a lightening strike in the 1850s while ploughing his land, leaving an illiterate wife and five young children to fend for themselves. As a woman who has always lived in the city, I am remote from the world in which my ancestors lived, and I found myself moved by Grenville’s portrayal of that world, with its underlying reality of inter-racial conflict.


While reading Sarah Thornhill’s story was generally a positive experience, this novel is not in the same league as The Secret River. It lacks the raw power and dramatic conflict of that work. In addition, although Grenville does a good job in giving Sarah a voice, she uses a stylistic device which becomes distracting - the use of sentence fragments rather than full sentences. While this reflects the laconic speech pattern of the Australian rural class, it’s overdone and makes all of the characters sound the same. Still, notwithstanding its weaknesses, I needed to read this novel. Grenville’s work is an important contribution to understanding and coming to terms with the Australian colonial experience and should be read by everyone whose family history ties them to this country. This is so even if I can’t rate this particular novel at more than 3-1/2 stars.