Fiction Review: “Sarah Thornhill” — A Lyrical Song in the Australian Outback

You are hardly aware of the historical facts. Kate Grenville internalizes them so completely in her novel that there is not a sentence that “stinks of history,” as a friend of mine once said about whole historical fiction genre.

Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville. Grove Press, $25.

By Roberta Silman

One of the pleasures of reading fiction is to become immersed in a story about people and places so far away and so alien to your experience that you would never dream of visiting them, even in your imagination. But here you are, with the book in your hand, transported, and, if you are lucky, transfixed. That was my experience, I am happy to report, with Kate Grenville’s new novel Sarah Thornhill, the last in a trilogy of historical novels about colonial Australia (the first two are The Secret River and The Lieutenant) but which can stand on its own.

Grenville is an Australian writer well known in her country for her many books of fiction and non-fiction; her earlier work has been translated into 20 languages, and she has won the prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction. She has also been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and here in the United States has been recognized by Barnes & Noble for her historical fiction. I have no doubt that her reputation around the world will surely grow with time.

In Sarah Thornhill, Grenville brings to life a place so wild that it seems to exist on the rim of the world and tells a familiar story in language that is striking—and also appropriate—in its simplicity but which somehow seems fresh and new. This novel begins in 1816 and is narrated by the youngest child in the Thornhill family, the illiterate Sarah whom the family calls Dolly. There is Pa, the man who settled here from England, and four older children, three brothers and a sister, and a step-mother whom they all call Ma but who is not their real mother. She died young, when Dolly was just a toddler, and came to help with the children, and Pa married her. When Dolly says, “I loved how neat it was, the way she told it, then and now stitched up right,” you can only love this girl for her acceptance of one of the hardest lessons of life. There is no whining in the Australian outback, and confidence in oneself must be not only sturdy but unusually strong. That is one of the themes of this engaging novel—that beliefs you once held are tested and broken and yet, because of the amazing resilience of the human spirit, you can survive.

At the beginning Dolly announces,

They called us the Colony of New South Wales. I never liked that. We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves.

The Hawkesbury [river] was where the ones come that was sent out. Soon’s they got their freedom, this was where they headed. Fifty miles out of Sydney and not a magistrate or a police to be seen. A man could pick out a bit of ground, get a hut up, never look back.

You heard that a lot. Never looked back.

Through Dolly’s eyes, we see an almost idyllic picture of this nineteenth-century family whose success and comfort are utterly taken for granted. The focus of Dolly’s life is Jack Langland, a close friend of her favorite brother, Will, whom she loves and who loves her and with whom she has experienced one night of intimacy that she will cherish until her dying day. Everything changes, though, when Will is drowned at sea, setting off a chain of events that will test this family to the utmost and reveal the mystery that has lurked beneath the surface of Pa and Ma’s life, a secret that alters Dolly’s life and crushes her. Here is Dolly at her very lowest:

Jack was gone but my body would not let it be so. Refusal turned me inside out, a vomit of cries and tears ripped out of me in long bleeding wails. I had no power to stop. I squatted on the dust rocking backwards and forwards to push away the thing that I would not allow. Snatched at my hair, tore it out in strands, wanting a pain in my body that would shut out the pain in my heart.

Everything was an enemy. The dirt under my hands, my clothes strangling me, the sun stabbing at me, the breeze grating at my skin. Myself was the worst enemy. I wanted to walk away, leave myself behind. Would of been pleased to stop being, then and there.

But the mastery of Grenville’s story-telling is that she holds that secret back until the very end and thus forces the reader to suffer with Dolly as she figures out, literally, how to continue to live a life without Jack, a life very different from the one she envisioned when young.

Author Kate Grenville — a strong novelistic voice

It is hard to convey the power of such a strong novelistic voice in small snippets, but it is the voice that carries this novel and makes it so resonant. An illiterate woman who grows up observing closely the world around her and discovering that just as the landscape can deceive and harm and stunt life, so can people. And if people are of a different color, as the Aboriginals are in Australia, then anything can happen.

Yet as you read, you are hardly aware of the historical facts. Grenville has internalized them so completely that there is not a sentence in this novel that “stinks of history,” as a friend of mine once said about whole historical fiction genre. And she writes a prose that is incantatory in its power to pull the reader along, like a wonderful song. So although this is a book filled with the pain that comes of love between two races and the violence that seems inevitable once countries are colonized and betrayals inevitably ensue, you close Sarah Thornhill with the deep satisfaction that Dolly, herself, expresses at the end, that the story has been told:

I’m never going to be able to tell what it was all about. Jack would be the only one now, and Jack’s not here. I can only tell what I know. Cruelties and crimes, miseries on every side. But of all the crimes done, the worst would be to let the story slip away. For what it’s worth, mine had best take its place, in with all the others.

Roberta Silman is the author of Blood Relations, a story collection; three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again; and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. She writes regularly for The Arts Fuse and can be reached at

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