Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville
September 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
I first heard of Kate Grenville when The Secret River was published, in 2005. That book was the first in the trilogy, which is now completed by Sarah Thornhill. Sarah is the youngest child of William Thornhill, the London convict shipped out to Australia and now made good.
If the word “trilogy” puts you off, it shouldn’t in this case. Grenville’s books are very far from the usual expectations of that historical genre. Although The Secret River and Sarah Thornhill share some of the same characters, they are both standalone novels, and the middle book, The Lieutenant, is entirely different (although set in the same time and place).
Sarah Thornhill is the coming-of-age story of a young woman caught between class and race boundaries in early nineteenth-century Australia. Her father was a convict, but he and his second wife see that time as far in the past, preferring to consider themselves as part of a new landed class. William Thornhill can’t escape his roots, and looks ridiculous on a horse, but his daughters are taught to ride and generally brought up as ladies. It’s not until Sarah’s sister Mary marries Campbell, a Scottish gentleman landowner that the girls understand the relative nature of status, wealth and class.
Sarah herself has no intention of marrying like Mary. She has long been in love with Jack Langland, son of a white man and an Aboriginal mother. He never knew his mother, and people try to avoid talking about her. Sarah is oblivious to the racial prejudice Jack experiences, but cannot remain oblivious to its effects on their relationship, particularly after her own family acquires its own part-Aboriginal member.
There are two things in particular that set this apart from typical historical romance. One is Sarah’s voice, which Grenville has done fantastically well. Just as tea only needs a small spoon of sugar to sweeten a whole cup, writing only needs the tiniest drop of idiomatic language to swell out and fill the whole narrative. Grenville walks this tricky line with poise, never caricaturing Sarah’s speech, and avoiding both mockery and romanticism in her spare yet vibrant prose. Without giving away too much of the plot, the other successful feature is that Sarah Thornhill does not have a traditional boy-meets-girl trajectory, and is all the better for it.