“Sarah Thornhill” by Kate Grenville – when life takes on different shapes viewed from different angles

Sarah Thornhill by [Kate Grenville]

A sequel to the prize-winning bestseller “The Secret River”, this can be read as a stand alone novel. Sarah Thornhill is a bright, shrewd  and spirited girl, but illiterate since no one sees any need for a girl to be able to read and write in C19  rural New South Wales.  Her father is an emancipist,  a euphemism in this case for a freed convict, who has worked hard and gained wealth and status through land, although at what price remains a guilty secret which would blight his descendants’ conscience and peace of mind once revealed.  The widow of a respectable soldier, Sarah’s step-mother is dedicated to drumming genteel ways into her husband and the children she has taken on.  All hell breaks loose when Sarah’s intention of marrying Jack Langland becomes known. Although  the  son of a well-off neighbour, he is unacceptable as a husband because his mother was a native girl, exploited at a time when  few European women were available.

Using Sarah as a narrator, Kate Grenville provides a vivid visual portrayal of  the Australian outback as it was first settled by Europeans, up to the sharp range of mountains marking “the Limit of Location”.  Daily life was underlain by the tensions, injustice  and casual brutality which resulted from the contact between white men in search of land assumed to be free for the taking, and aborigines with attitudes and  customs which incomers discounted or despised, their innate prejudice for the most part blinding them to the possible interest or  value of anything that was simply different.

The author spins a good yarn, dry wit mixed with poignancy, but the climax of the tale seems too implausible in some respects, contrived to serve a particular purpose and make points which the reader may find it hard to accept. Yet on reflection,  Kate Grenville has succeeded in producing some thought-provoking insights: the children of settlers may never feel that they truly belong to any country; those  who have profited unwittingly  from their parents’ exploitation of a native population may be driven to extreme measures to assuage their guilt.  Charitable gifts are insufficient – the only way fully to understand and empathise with  another culture is to experience it firsthand, in the process learning how it feels to be alien in one’s own.

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