(Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2012); pbk. £7.99
Drawing her New South Wales trilogy to a stunning conclusion, Kate Grenville’s latest novel, Sarah Thornhill, appeals to the romantic soul and the aesthete alike. Once more South-east Australia’s Hawkesbury River provides the mise-en-scène in which the Sydney-born author’s drama unfolds – an untamed coastline that exhibits as much personality as any one of the novel’s nineteenth-century frontier characters.
Sarah Thornhill is constructed as a sequel to 2005’s multi-award-winning The Secret River, but is just as touching as a stand-alone tale. This time around, the author’s focus shifts from the exploits of the reformed-convict colonist William Thornhill to the adolescent adventures of Thornhill’s youngest daughter, Sarah, whom the family affectionately call Dolly. Aptly nicknamed, her early years are defined by the premature death of her birth mother, and her father’s subsequent hasty remarriage, during which time Sarah is handed from one matriarch to another much like a fragile doll. Her “Pa”’s apparent success in agriculture affords his children a fairly conventional, albeit sheltered, middle-class upbringing, and first impressions suggest that Dolly is as green as the riverbanks upon which her family home resides. Her colloquial, fragmented dialect – though a result of her illiteracy – renders her refreshingly guileless, and it quickly becomes apparent that she possesses a wisdom that is indigenous rather than learned.
As adolescence approaches, the childhood Dolly is put away, and a “grown up” Sarah Thornhill emerges. Her passage into womanhood coincides with the return of handsome Jack Langland, a close family friend whom Sarah has always adored. Out of this happy coincidence grows a passionate and, at times, obsessive connection, reminiscent of the savage love between Kathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Such parallels only continue when Sarah is forbidden to marry Jack, and has to settle instead for the sober Irish gentleman John Daunt, Grenville’s answer to Brontë’s polite, self-effacing Edgar Linton.
What follows is an intensely affecting tale of life without the happily-ever-after; of learning to love again, and of coming to terms with the resurfacing of long-buried family secrets, which call into question the very essence of what it means to be Sarah Thornhill. Grenville’s novel, which estimable writer and literary editor Diana Athill calls “as gripping and illuminating” as its predecessor, is beautifully crafted. Her keen skill in transplanting her reader into a bygone colonial Australia is as wonderful as it is gentle. Even in the weak light of a Scottish winter’s eve, the heat of the Australian sun could be felt emanating from every page. It is a penetrative warmth that lingers long after you have closed the book. Particularly poignant is Grenville’s triumph in communicating Sarah’s total sense of “unbelonging”, denied from sharing in her father’s English heritage, the customs of her country’s aboriginal people, or her husband’s Irish traditions. Sarah revealingly describes the Hawkesbury community as “a place with no grannies and no grandpas. No aunties, no uncles. No past”. In that single candid remark stripping bare the crude realities of colonialism, her status is fixed as a mere product of Empire.
However, it is Grenville’s acute treatment of grief, richly imagined by Sarah as a “gap left in the ones left behind, a hole that swallowed everything else too”, that truly cuts to the quick; her protagonist’s ability to conquer the sheer agony of separation from loved ones is remarkable in one so young. “Commend thy soul to patience”, she beseeches herself; her capacity to endure undoubtedly becomes her greatest strength and her most endearing characteristic. When a tale is as deeply moving as Sarah Thornhill, its reader cannot help but share in Sarah’s anguish upon reaching the final page. In doing so, they must prepare to be separated from a world of characters whom Grenville ensures are so easy to fall in love with, and so impossible to forget.