Wednesday 21 February 2018

Review: Romantic fiction: Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville

Cannongate, £12.99
Available withfree P&P or bycalling 091 709350

This is the last book in Grenville's trilogy about the origins of modern Australia -- coming after The Secret River (shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and The Lieutenant. Sarah Thornhill continues the saga of the Thornhills begun in The Secret River. The heroine, Sarah, born in 1816, is the daughter of William, an ex-convict transported to Australia for stealing wood. Sarah's story is about life for first-generationers like herself.

In The Secret River, despite his humble beginnings, William makes a success of his new life in the colony and eventually manages to acquire 300 riverfront acres and a fine house near Sydney. Although he is illiterate (as is Sarah), his accumulated wealth deflects attention from his shady beginnings. William's second wife, Sarah's stepmother, craves status; Grenville brilliantly portrays the socially superior wife undermining the brooding patriarch.

Mysteries and silences abound. The Thornhill motto is: "never look back", and that's because the past holds shameful secrets: not only about William's humble beginnings, but also his violent dealings with the indigenous communities.

Relationships with them are at the heart of this story. When William discovers that his son fathered a child (a girl called Rugig) with a Maori woman, he wants her reared at Thornhill's Point.

William is estranged from his own half-Aboriginal son. Is he now trying to compensate for neglecting him? If so, he fails utterly. Rugig never settles. To Mrs Thornhill she is a constant reminder of William's close encounters with the Aborigines, and she tries to erase Rugig's Maori roots.

The fatal flaw of Sarah's decent, hardworking sweetheart, Jack, is that his mother is indigenous. So he will never do in the Thornhill household.

There's a blazing row when he seeks to marry Sarah. A secret Mrs Thornhill tells him about his Aboriginal relatives alienates him from the Thornhills for good.

Sarah's second romance has a happier outcome. She may be plain and plain-spoken, but John Daunt, of Irish Protestant land-owning stock, sets his cap at her.

However, when Rugig dies, she leaves Daunt to embark on a perilous journey to Rugig's Maori relatives. Telling them Rugig's story is her way of atoning for her family's shortcomings.

The Secret River plunged Grenville -- whose reputation soared when she won the Orange prize for an earlier book, The Idea of Perfection -- into controversy. It seemed that she touched a raw nerve about the shameful tangled past of immigrants and Aborigines.

Her approach is to ground her characters in historical reality. Her comments about The Secret River equally apply to Sarah Thornhill: "Most of the events in the book 'really happened' and much of the dialogue is what people really said or wrote."

Grenville knows that her story is not the definitive version of what happened, but it is one way of bearing witness. As Sarah Thornhill says, the worst crime "would be to let the story slip away."

This powerful saga of colliding histories blends romance and honesty. It is particularly resonant for Irish readers, not least because of the Irish emigrants who shaped Australia -- for better or worse -- but also because in Ireland we know plenty about tangled histories.

Dr Mary Shine Thompson is a former lecturer in English in St Patrick's College, Drumcondra

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