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Sarah Thornhill, by Kate Grenville.

July 31, 2012

Sarah Thornhill, by Kate Grenville.  Grove Press (2012), Hardcover, 352 pages.

A powerful novel of early British settlers about Australia, but one which stumbles in its depiction of Aboriginal people.

Kate Grenville is a superb writer, as many of you know. Her description of the Australian landscape and its settlers are as outstanding in Sarah Thornhill as they were in its predecessor, The Secret River. Grenville does an excellent job of getting inside her white characters and expressing their contradictions. Her plot brings together various strands of their stories. In this second novel on the British settlement of Australia, we see the daughter of William Thornhill grappling with her guilt and shame over his actions and her own inaction. But Grenville’s treatment of Indigenous people weakens her book and raises questions about our expectations for historical fiction.

In a 2006 lecture (available and worth reading on her website), Grenville discusses her motivation and response to researching the ancestors who served as prototypes for the series of books which include The Secret River and Sarah Thornhill. She had to face the fact that, despite being a fifth generation Australian, she was not “about as Australian as you can get.” Her own sense of being an Australian native was lost and she experienced the “grief of losing my unquestioned sense of belonging here.” In addition, her ancestors had acted with cruelty and ruthlessness that she could barely accept, much less justify. She had to admit that she “was descended from those who had tried to destroy the people who really had been ‘at one with the place’.” Her research became almost obsessive as she sought to get “inside” her ancestors and understand how Australia was “the most foreign place on earth to them” inducing “the fear that would have easily driven them to do terrible things.”

According to Grenville, non-Indigenous Australians must face the reality of their own immigration to the continent. Only then can the nation deal with contemporary questions of who really belongs and what equality means. In her eyes, fiction can help readers face the painful loss of their sense of Australian ownership because reading is a vicarious experience and we can stop reading any time we get overwhelmed. Also, the sheer pleasure of narrative, language and characters can offset any discomfort. This realization is commendable, and she is to be congratulated for attempting to expand her readers’ sense of Australian history.

Grenville, however, does not make the imaginative leap to creating Indigenous characters that were as fully human as her own ancestors.  In recreating what her ancestors felt and thought, she reproduces their limited views of those they considered their enemies.   In doing so she is perpetuating, not mere just depicting their perspective.

When trying to write sympathetically about Indigenous people, Grenville creates improbable situations which weaken her plot. Jack, Sarah’s first lover, seems more like a figure she dreamed than a real man. The opportunity for the daughter of a planter to spend enough time with a man of Indigenous descent to fall in love seems highly unlikely.  Of course biracial sexual relationships existed, although usually between white men and black women.  Black men didn’t stay for long periods with white families as guests, meeting planters’ daughters in their father’s parlors and assuming they could marry them.  And it would have been likely that Jack would have known the Thornhill’s “secret” from the beginning. The ending of the book is also problematic. The angry, aggressive Moari of New Zealand are unlikely to have welcomed, much less invited, a British woman into their community. At least Grenville wisely left Sarah alone at the end of the novel.

Getting inside characters from other times and other cultures is always difficult for authors and readers, yet that is exactly what historical fiction purports to do. It is particularly difficult to get inside characters who represent cultures that our own culture has habitually degraded.  A writer who seeks to deal explicitly with relationships that cross cultural and ethnic lines has a particular responsibility to insure that she or he provides full and realistic portrayals of all characters, especially when those characters did not historically treat each other with such respect.

Recent books show us that is possible to include Indigenous Australians in our accounts, even accounts of the period of the first contacts when the only written records were by the British.  We must, however, be willing to think speculatively and creatively, “pivoting in the experience of the other” as African American historian Elsa Barkley Brown calls it. The point is not to agree with what you are told but simply to see the other side.  In Dancing with Strangers, Inga Clendinnen, a non-Indigenous Australian, has painstakingly examined the writings of the first British settlers, accepting British descriptions of the Australians’, as she calls them, but rejecting their assumptions that the blacks acted irrationally and impulsively.  She uncovers cultural patterns that made sense of Indigenous actions in terms of their own understanding of what was right and wrong.  Drawing on his own background and knowledge of the Noongar, Indigenous writer, Kim Scott, has created a novel, That Deadman Dance, in which black characters display their own playful, adaptive approach to life even as white settlement drives them aside.

Books can help us understand each other, as Granville says.  But only when we add the imagination to put ourselves into the characters unlike ourselves. You don’t have to be Indigenous to write sensitively about their past.  You have to go an extra mile to imagine and experience what their lives may have been.  And read all you can by Indigenous authors telling their side of the stories. That’s why “Indigenous Literature Week” at ANZLitlovers was so important. Be sure and sign up for it next year.

I strongly recommend this book.  Grenville is too fine a writer to miss, and her portrayal of British settlers is excellent. But notice what gets left out.

Related books I have reviewed:

Dancing with Strangers, by Inga Clendinnen.

That Deadman Dance, by Kim Scott.

Read as a ebook review copy for Netgallery.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2012 4:46 pm

    Great review Marilyn of a book I haven’t read. I love Grenville and thought the The secret river was excellent, but I haven’t read the two succeeding books. In The secret river she avoided as I recollected trying to gt too far into an indigenous sensibility that she doesn’t know. That seemed sensible to me but t sounds like she’s been more daring here??

  2. August 31, 2012 8:46 am

    I think that her avoidance of indigenous thoughts and feelings may be the most disturbing feature of this book. I can appreciate her decision not to speak for indigenous characters, but the result is that they come across as much less human than her British ones. The problem hit me harder in this book than in The Secret River because the indigenous characters are more prominent.


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