The Many Tentacles of Family History
Radio New Zealand interview with Kate Grenville on 26th August 2011:
Go to ABC.net.au and search “Grenville” for several interviews, including The Book Show with Ramona Koval about Sarah Thornhill, recorded on 26th August 2011 at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival.
There’s a short video introduction to Sarah Thornhill at
http://youtu.be/CpHuZsPv1Lg (or search YouTube)
and a short reading from the novel at
The Lost Voices:
Kate Grenville has said that one of the things she was trying to do in Sarah Thornhill was to give a voice to people whose experiences weren’t recorded. Their lives have disappeared without leaving any of their individuality behind. In Sarah Thornhill, she’s tried to imagine the experiences of uneducated country women of the nineteenth century. Her own great-grandmother was one such woman.
Do some of you have family stories passed down from generation to generation? If you do, how many of them are passed down along the female line, from mother to daughter? How many of the stories are about the women and their experiences of life?
What novels and stories can you think of that portray the lives of Australian women in the nineteenth century?
How many of them are about well-off women of the gentry class?
Can you think of any books or poems that tell the story of uneducated, Australian-born country women in a way that shows them as fully rounded characters with an inner life? Or do they tend to be flat background characters?
Do you think Kate Grenville is right in thinking that their stories are among the “lost lives” of the past? And if they are, is it a worthwhile project to try to find them and give them a voice?
Do you find the portrayal of Sarah Thornhill as an illiterate Australian-born woman convincing? Do you believe that such a woman would have had the insights and imagination that Sarah Thornhill has? Or do you feel Sarah is too “modern” and too insightful for an uneducated country girl?
Did you find yourself re-drawing your stereotype of “the pioneer woman” as you read?
Part of this novel explores experiences that are rarely described in fiction: for example, childbirth and being the mother of an infant. Why do you think that in the past these big dramas have been mostly absent from fiction?
What about the men in the book – also mostly illiterate? Did you find her portrayal of Jack Langland, William Thornhill, and Dick, convincing as individuals rather than representatives of a “type”?
Challenges in the writing
Kate Grenville has pointed to two particular problems she had in writing this book: the voice and the plot.
Because Sarah Thornhill is a first-person story, it’s told in her own voice. Why do you think it might be difficult to imagine the world of a person who can’t read or write, and to write a convincing voice for that person?
Being literate has obvious disadvantages, but do you think that there might also be some unexpected advantages (remembering rather than relying on writing things down; thinking things through for yourself rather than being influenced by other people’s opinions…?) We live in an age of constant communication – might there be losses to us in that, as well as gains?
The plot of Sarah Thornhill is tightly knitted – all the strands connect and are dependent on each other. (Imagine the book without Rachel, or without Dick, both relatively minor characters, but vital to the plot.)
The classic plot is often thought of as “orientation” (setting the scene); “complication” (something intrudes into the scene that creates a problem); “response” (what the characters do about this problem) and “resolution” (how the problem is finds a resolution or a new equilibrium). Does the plot of Sarah Thornhill follow this pattern? Are there several plots, each working through its own pattern?
Some books tell you what the characters are like, the narrative filling in their background and telling you what they’re thinking. With a first-person story like Sarah Thornhill, the reader sees everything through the narrator’s eyes, and there’s no outside story-telling voice to give the reader a more objective view of characters and events. Do you think this is a weakness in a story, or does it make it more realistic (since in life we only have our own subjective view of things)?
Sarah is about 15 when she and Jack consummate their love. She’s about 18 when she gets married, and is only about 23 at the end of the book. This is a story about a very young women, a teenager for much of the book. Do you think this would be a useful or interesting book for today’s teenagers?
This is a book about a woman, told from her point of view. Do you think this is an obstacle for men to enjoy the book? Do you think men might be put off by such a “woman’s” book? Are women put off by reading books about men?
At one level, Sarah Thornhill is about love. There’s the “thunderclap” passionate love that Sarah and Jack experience. Then there’s the “slow-fuse” kind of love that Sarah finds with John Daunt. Are these two different kinds of love true to your experience? Do you think that this book has a “happy ending” in the sense that the love Sarah finds with Daunt might be more substantial than the love she and Jack shared? What problems do you think might lie ahead for them, given the differences in class and education between Sarah and John Daunt?
At another level, Sarah Thornhill is about family secrets, and what happens when they come out. Do most families have a secret, do you think? Should they sometimes stay hidden, or is it better to bring the skeletons out of the cupboard? Was it for better or worse that Sarah discovered the secret in her father’s life?
Did her father want the secret to be discovered, as Sarah thinks? Was sending Sarah to fetch Dick really his way of confession?
At another level again, Sarah Thornhill is about the hidden aspects of a nation’s past. The secret in Sarah’s family is the same secret that for generations lay unspoken about in Australian history – the story of the “frontier war” between the first Australians and the colonists, which was largely ignored or forgotten until historians brought it to light towards in the end of the twentieth century.
Do you think that on this level Sarah represents present-day Australians, in that she has to think through what to do with the knowledge she’s just learned?
She reponds by being more generous in giving charity to the indigenous people nearby, and also in making sure the story isn’t lost again. Do you think these responses are appropriate? Are they enough? Is there some other response she could have made? Or do you think that her sense of shame isn’t appropriate, since she wasn’t the person who committed the violence?
The story of Sarah’s niece, taken away from her extended family and her language, has echoes of Australia’s “stolen generations”. Some would argue that children were removed from their indigenous families “for their own good”, as Sarah’s Ma and Pa think. Jack, though of mixed descent himself, agrees. Yet the separation was a disaster for the little girl, as it was for many of the “stolen generations”. When people do the “wrong” thing for the “right” reasons, what attitude might we take towards them? Do you think this book is making a judgement on the characters, or is it exploring the moral tangle they find themselves in?
A “historical novel”?
Kate Grenville has said she doesn’t enjoy reading “historical fiction” because she doesn’t know where the history ends and the fiction begins. She describes Sarah Thornhill as “not a historical novel, but a novel set in the past”. What distinction do you think she’s making?
She’s also said that she’s “not especially interested in the past for its own sake, but in how it’s shaped the present.” Do you think Sarah Thornhill is about the present, as much as the past?
Sarah Thornhill is the third of a trilogy about colonial Australia. It’s also a stand-alone novel. In terms of the reading experience, what difference do you think it would make to have read either or both of the earlier novels before reading Sarah Thornhill, compared to reading this novel without having read the others? Would one be a stronger experience than the other, or does each have its own adantages?
Do you think The Lieutenant is really part of this trilogy, since it’s not about the Thornhill family, as the other two books are? Why do you think it’s included in the trilogy?
Could there be another book in the series, do you think? What might it be about? Or does this third book “close the circle” set up by the two earlier books?
“Sequels are tricky: they must cater for newcomers as well as for those who enjoyed the earlier book. Grenville clears this hurdle confidently in the first couple of pages of Sarah Thornhill… The pages describing the marriage of convenience between people who have been brought together by necessity are among the best in Grenville’s book, depicted with sure brush strokes…a strong and disturbing narrative.”
Sydney Morning Herald, Andrew Riemer
“This is a beautiful book, one that pulses with insight and compassion… Grenville’s descriptions are a delicate fretwork of words that have the extraordinary ability to make scenes that, in anyone else’s hands, might seem drab and commonplace, newly discovered. Grenville manages to find a voice that is simple and plain, yet strangely lyrical… Not only is Sarah Thornhill gorgeously written, but the love story at its heart is as real and true as it is unexpected. This is a novel that will be treasured by generations to come. It is that rare book that manages to wholly engage both head and heart. Grenville has done a splendid job.
The Canberra Times, Diane Stubbings
“The voice of illiterate Sarah, in which the whole story is told, is Grenville’s great triumph, wonderfully consistent in its slight roughnesses of grammar and diction …The book is a moving double love story – of a wild, romantic love and a slower, more mature, developing variety – an imaginatively convincing recreation of history and a celebration of country tenderly and beautifully observed.”
Katharine England, Adelaide Advertiser
“In Sarah Thornhill there are two poignant and delicately rendered love stories. Romantic love, however, is not the point of this novel. Coming to maturity, Sarah confronts the crimes of her father…The novel is simply and beautifully narrated. Grenville’s vivid fiction performs as testimony, memory and mourning within a collective post-colonial narrative.”
The Australian, Stella Clarke.
“Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story is one of the books by which other Australian fiction is judged – a stormy sensuous evocation of abuse and madness. Dark Places is its formidable successor. The Idea of Perfection is a superb representation of life that might look humdrum from a distance. Her new book, Sarah Thornhill, is a cleanly written, sometimes poignant re-imagining of early colonial life…it should satisfy the troops of readers who come to Grenville for the blood and drama of her imagining of Australia’s colonial origins…Sarah Thornhill is a moving piece of fiction and Kate Grenville is everywhere alive to the shadows and subtleties of family and putatively of national inheritance….there are plenty of things in it that are powerfully realised and touch the heart…she is a gift of a writer and her work rustles with life.”
Peter Craven, The Age
“Grenville is second only to Nobel-winner Patrick White as the most set Australian author on tertiary reading lists. The Secret River is the most frequently set text in English courses… like Tim Winton, she tells fast-paced but nationally significant yarns for a wide readership… Her publishers are doing her no favours with the literary men: the cover of Sarah Thornhill is a dreamy Mills and Boon-style picture of a young woman in period costume looking out across a river. But the story is pacy and provocative and carefully constructed.
The Australian, Miriam Cosic
“Grenville has completed her magnificent Colonial Trilogy to popular and critical acclaim….Grenville’s treatment of young love and intimacy is so touching it almost renders the early 19th-century setting irrelevant. Almost… In this novel she reminds us of the potency of first love, gives voice to the struggle and endurance of first-generation Australian woman and expresses sorrow over the dispossession of land from Aboriginals by settlers.”
The West Australian, Claire Williams
“Unashamedly romantic, Sarah Thornhill will appeal to lovers of colonial Australian fiction. Its themes of young love lost and the destructive power of secrets, and Grenville’s clear writing, will also make it attractive to younger readers.”
Bookseller and Publisher Magazine, Fiona Stager
“Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s finest and most celebrated writers. Her latest novel is proof she deserves all the accolades… Sarah Thornhill is an Australian story. A great one.”
Weekend Bookworm, Warren Boland
“If you want to be a great novelist, write about great things. Grenville does, undertaking the hard research, reflection and work of imagining in fiction how traumatic parts of our human story have played out… It’s a case of the hard job well done. Grenville approaches the historical research task meticulously, with the utmost seriousness.”
The Canberra Times, Christine Wallace
“Sarah Thornhill is an instantly warmer, less wistful book [than The Secret River].Grenville gives Sarah a likeable, robust voice; not quite historical but engaging the reader with historically rooted urgency. Grenville’s great strength is her sensual fleshing-out of the past, the Hawkesbury’s lovely “surge and bubble”. Her vision of our colonial history is at once compelling and fable-like, as she writes contemporary white self-knowledge back into it. Like its predecessors, Sarah Thornhill will be welcomed by many readers as just the story we need now.”
The Monthly, Delia Falconer
“Grenville transforms our history into something immediate and tangible, which gives readers the chance to enter our shared past. Sarah Thornhill is written from Sarah’s point of view; her voice is strong and true. The rhythms of her speech alone take this novel a long way. Grenville has an ability to make you see landscape afresh and to experience something of the fear and pleasure that such wild beauty aned isolation evoked in the settlers…the final sequence is starkly poetic. Grenville’s extraordinary trilogy is a major achievement in Australian literature.”
Australian Book Review, Sophie Cunningham
“Sarah is a compelling character and Grenville occupies her skin with conviction. This is a novel of irresistible depth and richness. Every page is a revelation.”
“Grenville’s Early Australia trilogy comes to a brilliant conclusion with this novel. Full of fascinating characters, this accessible novel will appeal to a broad audience.”
Ellen Loughran, Booklist (UK)
“A compelling first-person narrative…”
The Guardian, (UK) Robert McCrum
“The power with which Kate Grenville evokes places and people is so remarkable that it was no surprise to discover that Sarah Thornhill’s story is as gripping and illuminating and her father’s was.”
“It is with marvellous vividness and clarity that Grenville evoke’s Sarah’s world – Sarah, a character of great spirit and determination.”
The Guardian, (UK)Belinda McKeon.
“As Sarah Thornhill cannot read or write, Grenville has to perform an act of ventriloquy similar top that of Peter Carey in True History of the Kelly Gang, but Sarah’s voice has an attractive personality and proves adept at describing the landcape and those who struggle to survive in its unforgiving beauty.”
The Telegraph, (UK) Mark Sanderson
“Grranville’s great skill as a writer is to take the best of biographical details and spint them into something of intricate moral complexity.”
The Telegraph (UK), Viv Groskop
“A book of tangled histories…Grenville brilliant portrays the socially superior wife undermining the brooding patriarch…this powerful saga of colliding histories blends romance and honesty. It is particularly resonant for Irish readers, not least because of the Irish emigrants who shaped Australia, but also becuase in Ireland we know plenty about tangled histories.”
Independent (Ireland),Mary Shine Thompson
“Grenville’s early books, Lilian’s Story and Dark Places, are outstanding works that readers should track down. Her historical novels are important quests that go beyond art: they are actively opening up the past…she knows how to tell a story and has no difficulty in creating a powerful sense of the open spaces of Australia.”
The Irish Times, Eileen Battersby
“Queen Elizabeth keeps her views of literature well guarded, but does read and enjoy the Commonwealth Writers’ prize winners, especally historical fiction by Kate Grenville, Lloyd Jones and Lawrence Hill.”
Newsday, (US)Sarah Weinman
“Sarah Thornhill is both brilliant fiction and illuminating personal history.”
The Independent (UK), Arifa Akbar
“A beautifully written novel.”
We Love This Book (US)
“Grenville’s description of the harshly beautiful Australian landscape is unforgettable, more poetry than prose… and the tragic story will haunt you for a long time. Getting to grips with Australians’ complex history is a lot easier with a writer as sensitive as Grenville to point the way.”
The Guardian audiobooks (UK), Sue Arnold
“A graceful, passionate story of love, loss and treacherous family histories, written in beautifully measured prose.”
Marie Claire (UK)
Sarah Thornhill provides a wrenching conclusion to a tough-hearted trilogy about the colonizing of Australia. Grenville constructs a plot with as many twists as the river that runs through the Thornhill’s property. This is a novel that can’t be easily categorised – exuberant, cruel, surprising, a triumphant evocation of a period and a people filled with both courage and ugliness.
New York Times, Susann Cokal