Book reviews

sarahSarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville is the sequel to The Secret River, which I read earlier this year and enjoyed. I liked the story of Sarah Thornhill too, although at times I did feel as if the author was trying to force some points a little too hard.

The Secret River is the story of an English convict who made a success of his life in Australia after being freed. The Secret River highlighted the mass murders of Aboriginal people by the English colonists, which until recently, was not openly spoken of or acknowledged.

Sarah Thornhill, the character who the book is named for, is the child of the English convict and his wife from The Secret River. As the child of a convict, Sarah is known as a ‘currency lass’, and the story is told in her uneducated dialect, which are often fragmented pieces of sentences. Her voice is truthful though, and without artifice.

Sarah grew up on her father’s property, Thornhill’s Point on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, with her older brothers, a handful of distant neighbours and a few Aboriginal servants. From a very early age Sarah’s heart belonged to Jack, Sarah’s brother Will’s best friend. Jack and Sarah’s relationship was complicated because Jack’s mother was Aboriginal, however he also loved her and they planned a future together. Eventually, for reasons which no one would tell Sarah, Jack abruptly ended their relationship.

Will and Jack had long been travelling to New Zealand to work in the sealing trade, and after Jack broke off the relationship with Sarah, he and Will returned to New Zealand. Tragically, Will drowned in New Zealand, and Jack returned to Australia to tell the Thornhill family of Will’s death. Jack also told the Thornhills that Will had a child in New Zealand from his long term liaison with a Maori woman. Sarah’s father insisted that Jack bring Will’s child to him, to be brought up as a Thornhill and Jack obliged, although against his better judgement.

Will’s child, who is renamed Rachel because the Thornhill’s were unable to pronounce her name, was desperately homesick for her family in New Zealand. She never settled in Australia and after having been desperately unhappy and homesick for several years, died tragically. By this time Sarah had married another man and had a child. Jack returned to Australia after learning of Rachel’s death and insisted that Sarah return with him to New Zealand, to explain to Rachel’s family how and why she died, as a mark of respect and to take responsibility for the wrong which was done to Rachel.

I felt that Jack and Sarah gave up on each other too easily. The reason they parted became known and it was a strong reason for them to part, but after this event, the story felt as if it got lost.

Rachel’s story could have become the focus when the romance between Sarah and Jack ended, but unfortunately Rachel seemed only to exist in order for the author to make a point about the difference between the experience of the Aboriginals and the Maoris. The respect shown to Maoris in New Zealand and to Aboriginals in Australia at a time when both countries were being colonised by the English was in stark contrast.

I believe there is a third book by Kate Grenville called The Lieutenant, which concludes this story. I expect I will read it at some time.







Comments on: "Sarah Thornhill (Sequel to The Secret River) by Kate Grenville" (5)

  1. Not sure I could cope with the dialect in this one, but the first one still appeals. It is interesting how differently the two aboriginal peoples were treated – I’d never really thought about it like that. Was it to do with the way the two countries were settled?

    • Written dialect annoys me enormously, to the point of not finishing books. I think New Zealand Maoris had a more united, settled way of living than Australian Aboriginals, who were generally nomadic at the time of European arrival in each country. Maoris also shared a single language, which made them a force to be reckoned with, and after the Maori Wars there was a peace treaty signed which gave the Maori people rights (although I believe they suffered from racism then and now). Australian Aboriginals had over 500 very distinct groups with completely different languages, and were eradicated in the way a pest would be got rid of, without being able to fight back en masse the way the Maoris could. Those that survived were treated dreadfully, not being able to live traditionally unless in very remote locations, and not being welcomed into the dominant society even when they took on European ways. The size of each country probably had something to do with how each group of people evolved too. I’m not as knowledgeable as I probably should be about Australia’s history, as so much was hidden and has only really come into the public arena quite recently. I’ve been lucky enough to visit New Zealand, and the difference between the way the two groups are treated in their own countries is noticeably different. This is a really big question, so please bear in mind this is only my opinion.

      • Very interesting – thank you! I know a tiny little bit more about the Maoris than the Australian Aboriginals, purely because I flat-shared for a while with a NZ friend in London and she was interested in the culture, so I picked up bits and pieces. We once went to see a film called, I think, Once Were Warriors, which gave a very bleak picture of modern Maori life, tainted by alcohol and domestic violence, and struggling to maintain a sense of cultural identity. I can’t say it was an entertaining film, but it was certainly interesting…

      • I think I went on a bit, but it is a subject that riles me. I read ‘Dreamboat Dad’ by Alan Duff, who wrote Once We Were Warriors a while ago and although it was an amazing book, it was tragic in exactly the same you’ve described Once We Were Warriors. Being part of the majority group makes a person lucky, I think.

      • Indeed! We moan about the ongoing inequality of women, but really the problems we face are pretty minor in comparison to so many people around the world…

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