Kate Grenville’s follow-up to The Secret River and The Lieutenant has no doubt been anticipated by many people, though it appears to have been released to not a great deal of fanfare. And with a terrible cover. Why this is, I don’t know. Grenville is one of the best Australian novelists working at the moment, and her stuff – particularly her historical stuff – always provides an interesting view on Australian history, and what it means to be an Australian now.
Sarah Thornhill has grown up on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, with her rather large family. Her father, William Thornhill, has made a life for them, despite being a former convict, and wants his children to be better than he could ever be. But when Sarah realises she loves Jack Langland, a friend of her brother’s, a man whose mother was Aboriginal, she doesn’t realise the implications this relationship will have on her family, on Jack, and on the way she views the world.
Readers be warned: as opposed to The Lieutenant, which picks up some of the themes and ideas, this is a direct sequel to The Secret River, so while you probably don’t have to have read the first in order to enjoy this, certain events in the former are vitally important to understanding the message that Grenville is trying to get across here.
The love story central to the beginning of the novel is quite well done, and I like the idea of what’s going on here. I mentioned when I reviewed Caleb’s Crossing, I was glad Brooks didn’t go for the obvious “white girl falls in love with untouchable native man” story. But that feels more comfortable here, particularly when their love does come out – the idea that Jack is a good man, up until the point of sleeping with a white girl, is vital to the story here, and fits in with Grenville’s explorations of the white/black Australia relationship. Jack leaves Sarah when he is told something by her mother, something that enrages him so much, he can no longer stand to be around Sarah or her family, and he disappears off into the river, assumingly never to be seen again.
Rachel – the girl “rescued” from her New Zealand family, and brought kicking and screaming into white Australia is interesting, too. The bastard daughter of Sarah’s older brother, she is brought to the Hawkesbury on the whim of William Thornhill who, as it turns out, is a man wracked with guilt over the events of The Secret River. He wants to atone for his mistakes, and for him, the best way to do that is to take this girl, and give her a “proper” life, away from the savages of her maternal family. Unsurprisingly, this is not a good idea, and the attempts to “civilise” Rachel will be familiar to those who are in any way familiar with the history of the Stolen Generation. Sarah is uncomfortable with this course of action – having seen what= happened to Jack, who in many ways is a precursor to Rachel – but is unable to do anything about it, caught up in her own worries.
We eventually discover what Sarah’s mother said to Jack, forcing him to leave the picture – that William Thornhill is responsible for the massacre that killed his family and tribe – Grenville’s message begins to come into focus. Sarah’s reaction to this, the fact that she is part of a society built on a cruel and unusual turning point, is perhaps what we, as modern Australians should feel when we, too, realise the same thing. Sarah’s grief at hearing about the massacre is tangible, and forces her to consider what it means to be a white Australian – as someone born to English parents in New South Wales, she has never known any other home, but at the same time, her feelings of guilt force her to question her place in this land.
Her reactions to this guilt will no doubt be familiar to many of us – she begins to hand out food and clothing to the Aboriginal tribes living around her property, as though this one act of charity will absolve her of all past wrongs. Of course, this has no effect on anything, and deep down, Sarah knows this. The only way forward is to right the wrongs for which she is directly responsible. In this case, it means doing something to absolve herself of the problem of Rachel. Sarah’s actions may be surprising to some readers, but I think it makes a lot of sense, and her own turmoil – whether to stay with her happy family, or be a part of something much bigger – plays a large part in this final act.
So much in Sarah Thornhill is about guilt – the guilt white Australians feel about . And this is what historical fiction at its best should be – a story about the past that informs and comments on contemporary society. Grenville offers some answers to this guilt, but nothing so concrete as to preach. Her message of understanding, and of truthfully telling the past, is one that resonated with me, and hopefully will resonate with the wider Australian, and international, readership.
Oh, and there’s a hilariously bitchy comment in the afterward, where Grenville snipes at her critics (no doubt Inga Clendinnen at the front of her mind), and reminds us all that this is a work of fiction, not of historiography. Amazing.