Several years ago I had the opportunity to read The Secret River by Kate Grenville, a book which really opened my eyes about the history of convicts who were shipped to Australia and the early history of New South Wales. It’s a wondeful book, heartbreaking and moving, and although it’s a work of fiction, a lot of research seems to have gone into developing the historical basis of the book and it feels very realistic.
When I saw that Grenville had written a follow-up novel, Sarah Thornhill, I couldn’t wait to read it. Luckily I was able to receive a review copy via NetGalley. For those of you looking to read it, it was officially released yesterday, so it should be available at your local bookstore or library.
Sarah Thornhill is the youngest child of William Thornhill, convict-turned-landowner on the Hawkesbury River. She grows up in the fine house her father is so proud of, a strong-willed young woman who’s certain where her future lies.
She’s known Jack Langland since she was a child, and always loved him.
But the past is waiting in ambush with its dark legacy. There’s a secret in Sarah’s family, a piece of the past kept hidden from the world and from her. A secret Jack can’t live with. A secret that changes everything, for both of them.
Kate Grenville takes us back to the early Australia of The Secret River and the Thornhill family. This is Sarah’s story. It’s a story of tangled secrets, a story of loss and unlooked-for happiness, and a story about the silent spaces of the past.
I didn’t realize it when I read this book, but there is actually another novel, The Lieutenant, that comes before this one in Grenville’s trilogy about early Australian history. However, from what I can see, that novel has a separate main character who is unrelated to the Thornhill family which features in The Secret River and Sarah Thornhill, so I don’t think I missed too much story-wise in reading this one first.
Sarah was just a child during the events of The Secret River, and she is still young as Sarah Thornhill opens. However, she knows nothing of the dark events that have shaped her family’s history in this new land, and she grows up as part of a prosperous family despite her father’s checkered past. Although she lost her mother, her father has remarried to a woman who is above him socially and who tries to pull the family up with her.
Sarah grows up loving a family friend, Jack Langland, who is the son of another local landowner and a native woman. Jack is half-white, half-black, and although he is mainly accepted it is impossible for him or others to completely ignore his color as he lives in white society. Because Jack is a friend of her father’s, Sarah assumes that his native half will not pose a stumbling block to their relationship, and as she grows up they develop an intimate relationship and begin planning their future together.
A family tragedy brings to light things that have been hidden, and William Thornhill’s insistance on trying to re-right the wrongs of his past lead Sarah and Jack down a dangerous road, setting Jack at odds with the Thornhill family and uncovering the dark history that has been buried for so many years. When the truth is finally revealed, Sarah’s life is irrevocably altered, and she has to build a new life for herself with the knowledge she now has about her family.
I don’t want to give away too many crucial details of the story, but I read the book wondering if it would be possible to read this book independently of The Secret River and what kind of effect that would have on the reader’s experience. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is possible, and it might even have a more powerful impact on the reader. Although I really enjoyed Sarah Thornhill, particularly the aspects of the story that dealt with New Zealand and the native people there, the “big reveal” for Sarah, when she learns the truth about her family, was almost anticlimactic for me because I already knew the story from The Secret River. I can remember being more moved by the first novel, probably because I was reading about these experiences for the first time. Sarah Thornhill didn’t have as great of an emotional impact because the backstory was already familiar to me.
Sarah Thornhill also feels like a much smaller, more intimate character portrait than the first novel. The Secret River tells a much broader story, while Sarah Thornhill is really just about Sarah’s experience, even as she is affected by all that is going on around her and the larger social context of the issues she faces.
I thought Sarah Thornhill was a very good book, but if you want to get the bigger picture of Australian history and the social and racial tensions of the early colonies, I would recommend reading The Secret River, too. And now I need to go out and read The Lieutenant, too, so I will have read the complete trilogy!
Thanks to Grove Press and NetGalley for providing me with a digital galley of this book.
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