Sarah Thornhill is the sequel to Kate Grenville’s award-winning novel, The Secret River, which was set during the early years of the 19th century in the expanding colony of New South Wales. Drawing on extensive family research, Grenville tells the story of Sarah, William Thornhill’s youngest daughter; Jack Langland, a young aboriginal man orphaned by frontier violence; and a young Maori girl who lived amongst them for a time. This is the tale of the next generation of Hawkesbury River settlers – those who have grown up ignorant of the carnage so shockingly portrayed in The Secret River. Yet, it is essentially a tale of violence. For as new loves are formed, in this young ‘innocent’ generation, old truths come to the surface, and those who remember must find new and terrible ways to assuage the sins of the past.
As a literary work, Sarah Thornhill has much to recommend it. The novel is written in a unique and compelling first-person voice that somehow feels right for its time. Sarah’s romance with Jack Langland is both tender and poignant, yet devoid of sentimentality. In keeping with Grenville’s earlier works, the narrative also pushes the boundaries of dialogue and formatting. Yet, at a deeper level, this novel is so much more than a good read. So much more that an experiment with voice and punctuation. For like The Secret River, it is a deeply personal story – ‘a story of cruelty and crime and miseries on every side.’ A litany, perhaps – or a confession, of things done and things left undone. A story that must go on being told.