There are moments when history seems laden with a loss of innocence, a transition from certainty to confusion, guilt and loss.
This illusion can be powerful, allowing for great historical fiction where the growth of the individual and the coming of age of a nation are combined, creating a moment grounded in a particular time and place.
Such is Kate Grenville’s subtle and moving Sarah Thornhill,
in which an infant New South Wales exists prior to a federated Australia. The burgeoning colony gives solid background to one woman’s hardscrabble journey into the land of love, marriage, and tragic family secrets in a story not
only about the past but also the present and its unfinished business.
Sarah Thornhill can neither read nor write, but she is blessed with fierce intelligence and a good, kind heart. Born of Captain Thornhill, an emancipist who worked his way up, Sarah and her siblings have never known her father’s hard times. He strived to get them a house, money, and a good mother, and now they live
on three hundred acres of good riverfront land in a grand cottage on the banks of the Winsor River.
The Thornhills have come to be regarded as one of the better families, “on the up-and-up,” similar to those who are coming to the colony as “free settlers.”
Although Sarah’s allegiances and memories are perfectly grounded in the country where her father was sent as a convict, she has little room for protest other than a persistent lack of knowledge of the wider world outside the Hawkesbury River Valley.
What happens throughout the course of her life will turn her into a wiser and harder woman, suspicious of everything but all too aware that her suspicions can be turned into great acts of compassion and redemption.
Telling her tale in Sarah’s voice, Grenville does an exacting job of tackling the logistical problems in such a complex historical story. Everything is shepherded through Sarah’s point of view, and the way she sees her world becomes our insight into the roles the settlers play in their infant colony, as well as their uneasy interactions with the native aboriginals, the “black fellas” who seem little more than skinny, shadowy wraiths
sitting around in groups under the trees at the edge of town, so dark and so still.
Sarah treats the aborigines with a sort of trained caution until she meets “half darkie” Jack Langland and falls in love with him. Jack, whose mother was a long dead “darkie,” has grown older and is used to the idea that he carries a native woman’s blood in his veins. No one ever asks and no one ever speaks about this stain on the boy’s origins as he walks about town,
eerily confident with his green eyes, black eyelashes and thick, dark hair.
As Jack readies to set sail to New Zealand with Sarah’s older brother on a seal-hunting expedition,
the lovers are blindsided by the harsh judgments of those around them. “Groping in a fog of sadness," Sarah is suddenly held hostage to Ma’s threats
(“over my dead body you’ll marry that black") while Pa tries to tell her that marrying Jack “will be a step down.” Sarah’s grim discovery of a dark family secret and an evolution of lives built upon blood will make her finally see the cruelty of the world in a new and terrible way.
Grenville is a vivid writer with an astute eye for certain aspects of Australia’s social history, and she makes Sarah’s simple voice feel immediate and alive. In prose that is smoothly readable without ever sacrificing great psychological depth, Grenville shows us how Australia was created through the sacrifices of its native people and how the forces that shape a young woman’s future can also shape the society in which she lives.