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Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville

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

The Hawkesbury 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. – page 3

Sarah Thornhill, also called Dolly, is the youngest child of English settler, William Thornhill, in 19th-century Australia. It continues from Grenville’s 2005 bestseller The Secret River  where Sal is long dead now , and Sarah and her siblings have a stepmother, Meg, a strict and unsentimental woman who keeps busy with the work of social climbing; her task, as she sees it, is to mask her husband’s “taint” past – his past as a convict deported from England from stealing a timber from the Thames – by mixing with the right kind of people and raising his daughters as proper ladies.

Sarah is wilful and rebellious, happiest outdoors riding her horse like a bloke and has no interest in any of her stepmother’s ambition. Against the family wishes, she falls in love with Jack Langland, who in contemporary term which may get me in trouble by saying this in public, is labelled as “half darkie”, a product of the early years of colonisation when the white women were not shipped over to the colony yet.

Jack works with Sarah’s brother Will, gone for long periods on sealing expeditions to New Zealand, returning with what sound like fantastical stories of a wild and exotic place, with tribes who are different build than the Australian aborigines and who painted their faces and stuck out their tongues while doing their war dance. Jack was made welcome in the Thornhill’s household and grew up with Sarah. As years goes by, Sarah recounts her heartache of waiting while Jack is at sea, when he returns the two spent most of their time together and make no attempt to hide their affections with each other. Soon they made promises and plans for a life in a cabin at a place called Sullivan, up the river.

As expected, the plan didn’t run its course and I was spoiled by the blurb for story that happened on the final 50 pages of the book that Sarah will be sailing to New Zealand for some form of atonement. Sarah and Jack’s love story was curtailed by a shameful secret of the Thornhill’s family which will make it impossible for them to be together.

I don’t think it matters if you read The Secret River before you read this book. There is only a brief reference to the previous book and I enjoy this book in its special way that has got nothing to do with what’s happen in the first book. I decided to pick up the book when the beautiful golden cover sat on the feature shelf in the library and spurred earlier on the 30 January 2012 of what Kate Grenville said about her new novel:

When I was growing up we weren’t taught these aspects of Australia’s past – it was all about pioneer heroes. It’s no good trying to ignore it – let’s look at it and acknowledge the wrongs committed in the past. One well-documented case is the Waterloo Creek massacre in New South Wales in 1838, one of the very few cases that came to court. Perpetrators of massacres weren’t often caught – and if they were, they were often let off. This massacre involved aboriginal women and children being chained neck-to-neck, taken up a hill and shot. Their bodies were burned. This aspect of our history needs to be acknowledged and my way of addressing it is by writing books.

…. My view is we owe a debt and we need to tell those stories in a truthful and accessible way.

I read the secret river in June 2010 and it is probably the italic sentences that ruin the pleasure for me a little but I must say not that I read Sarah Thornhill again, I just love…. the way Kate Grenville writes. I loved how neat it was, the way she told it. It is tight and not a word is wasted on peripherals. The feeling is truthful, the writing is beautiful and although The Guardian said Maggie O’Farrell in the book ‘The Hand That First Held Mine” is a skilful and hurtful writer but I think Kate Grenville fit that description far better with this book. There were so many passages that felt my heart broken just by reading them (contain minor spoiler):

You tell me, he said. Tell me straight. If you seen something you like better, say the word. Jack Langland always be a friend to Sarah Thornhill no matter what. – page 89

I watched the yellow dust where his foot had been. As if he’d come back if I watched long enough. Held my breath, waiting. A puff of breeze shook the bushes, coiled on the ground, rose up carrying dust and leaves. Whirled like something alive, then fell back into itself, dust lying on dust.

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 me, the breeze grating at my skin. Myself was the worst enemy. I wanted to walk away, leave myself behind. Would have been pleased to stop being, then and there. – page 148

To be disappointed you had to of hoped – page 152

You can wish for too much, I thought. You can want so much, you lose your own children and grandchildren. – page 164

Handsome you’d never say of Daunt, but I seemed to of come to another way of seeing things, where a man needn’t be handsome to be a fine-looking man. – page 221

He knew better than me. Knew the colour of your skin and the colour of your mother’s skin wasn’t a thing you could brush aside. It was part of who you were, even if no one wanted to talk about it.

He knew, even before he knew why.

When he left me on the road that day it seemed like the end of the world, because the man I knew as well as myself had become a stranger. I saw now what I couldn’t see then. If Jack looked a stranger that day, it was because he’d always been one. – page 261

The flaws I found in the book was towards the end. There are loose ends that are left unexplained. A secret child was abandoned, a lost brother which sees no reconciliation, there is a epic journey that Sarah took to New Zealand which are not given enough air time nor deep development of characters that she met. The ending seems to be wrapped up in haste.

At the end, I thought it is a story about Australia early history but more than that it is about the story of Sarah Thornhill. I love how Kate Grenville evokes Sarah’s world, from childhood on the Hawkesbury River, through an adolescence of idealistic love, to a marriage towards which she goes with a resigned heart but ending up on a safe hand. In a very simple prose and story, but in uniquely Kate Grenville’s style, she writes a beautiful story about how adolescence love is different from mature love, how we can work at it and make good of current relationship while remembering the one that was deeply etched in our hearts. It is also a story about racial tension and tolerance. It’s a love story between two people of different races who fell in love and whether our parents know best or we knew better.

The book challenged me about the notion of how far we would go to accept a person of different skin colour as a part of our family.

The book is not perfect but I love it.


Jack’s as good a feller as ever drew breath, Pa said. You think he’s a grand feller and he is. But not to marry, Dolly.

Pet, Pa said, you’re not much more than a child. Not old enough to see your way all around a thing. No, let me say my piece, Dolly.

You know I worked up from nothing, he said.

Worked my way up, Pa said. Want to see you children get the good of it. Not throw it all away, slip back to where I come from. You’ll have opportunities, pet, he said. Get up in the world. Marrying Jack Langland be a step down. You think none of that matters. But Dolly, I’m telling you as your father I can’t let you turn your back on your opportunities. – page 141

Special edition paperback. Publisher: Canongate 2012; Length:307 pages; Setting: Australia and New Zealand.  Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading at: 4th March 2012, Sunday.

Other resource:

Kim@Reading Matters tweeting her way through the Sarah Thornhill’s book launch

Kate Grenville’s interview on Sarah Thornhill – Some people aren’t ready for the truth about aborigines

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


9 thoughts on “Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville

  1. I’ve not read anything by Kate Grenville but after reading your review I think I should definitely try something by her.

    Posted by jessicabookworm | March 15, 2012, 9:37 am
    • Jessica,
      She writes in a very unique way and you have to read to understand what I mean. She is a good writer, so I’ll read another of her book and if I love it just as much I’ll bring her in my favourite authors hall of fame!

      Posted by JoV | March 15, 2012, 9:11 pm
  2. I read and very much enjoyed The Secret River. I read one other book by Grenville which was OK but I don’t really remember much about it.

    What a pity that the blurb gave so much of the ending away. I dislike that so much! I prefer if the blurb just tells me a bit of the premise, no more than the first 50 pages or so.

    I think I’ll read this when I come across it, but I’m not sure it’s going on my wishlist just yet.

    Posted by Leeswammes | March 15, 2012, 10:20 am
    • Judith,
      I’m not sure why the blurb chose to mention something that happened on the last 50 pages…? If you love Secret River I think you would love this. There are just too many books to put on wishlist. I won’t pester you to add one more!

      Posted by JoV | March 15, 2012, 9:14 pm
  3. I’m so pleased to see that you loved this book. Secret River was amazing and I was worried that this couldn’t quite live up to it, but now I have hope. I look forward to reading it soon.

    Posted by Jackie Bailey (@farmlanebooks) | March 15, 2012, 1:59 pm
    • Jackie,
      I think this book is simpler, it is a love story but it is also about the life of a young woman. I think Grenville writes beautiful sentences that stop me on my track for both Secret River and this book.

      Posted by JoV | March 15, 2012, 9:15 pm
  4. This sounds great, both this and Secret River are straight on my wishlist! It’s an aspect of history I know next to nothing about.

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | March 15, 2012, 8:15 pm


  1. Pingback: March 2012 : Wrap-up! « JoV's Book Pyramid - April 10, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
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A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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