“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Nobody Move, This Is a Review: SARAH THORNHILL by Kate Grenville
THE SECRET RIVER, Grenville’s fifth novel, was published in 2006. It concerned itself with a character called William Thornhill, a settler on the Hawkesbury River, investigating how Thornhill evolved from a deported convict to a respectable land-owner. William Thornhill is based in part on Kate Grenville’s great-great-great-grandfather. THE SECRET RIVER won a number of prizes, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Grenville subsequently published SEARCHING FOR THE SECRET RIVER, a non-fiction account of the research she did for THE SECRET RIVER, following that up with THE LIEUTENANT (2008). The second in the loose trilogy, it is set 30 years before THE SECRET RIVER, and details the relationship between a soldier and a young Aboriginal girl of the Gadigal tribe. The book is based on the notebooks of the historical figure Lieutenant William Dawes.
SARAH THORNHILL (2011) follows on directly from THE SECRET RIVER. Sarah Thornhill is William Thornhill’s daughter, and is in part based on Grenville’s great-great-grandmother. Other characters in the novel, including Jack Langland and John Daunt, are also based on historical figures.
Essentially, the story is a coming-of-age tale, with Sarah’s experience of her pioneer life shaped but by no means defined by her relationships with three men: her father, her lover and her husband. But while the story does concern itself with the vagaries of very different kinds of love, the ‘secret river’ of the first in the trilogy’s novels refers to the Aboriginal bloodline and history that has been carried down through the generations since Australia was first colonised, and Grenville is at pains to explore the fraught relationship between black and white in early Australia.
Essentially, she is putting human faces on the colonial experience, and while her settler characters are for the most part very sympathetically drawn (apart from those guilty of class snobbery), there is no doubt that her true sympathies lie with the displaced and dispossessed natives.
In terms of her style, Grenville (who has previously won a number of literary prizes, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for THE SECRET RIVER) has set herself something of a challenge in terms of allowing Sarah Thornhill narrate this story. Sarah is the daughter of a prosperous landowner, but is nonetheless uneducated in terms of a classical education. Despite this, Grenville gives Sarah a unique way of seeing the world, and allows her to express herself in an earthy kind of poetry. It’s a fine line to tread, but Grenville strikes a beautiful balance; Sarah is not so given to flowery utterances that we fail to believe in her, but her thought process is interesting enough, and so evocatively delivered, that she quickly becomes an enthralling character.
Sarah’s pragmatism, meanwhile, is reflected in the descriptions of the Australian Outback. Grenville doesn’t neglect to mention the mud and the dust, the flies, the loneliness of its vastness, but neither does she fail to give its raw beauty its full due.
All told, SARAH THORNHILL offers a unique voice telling a fascinating story against a turbulent and occasionally harrowing backdrop. Warmly recommended. - Declan Burke