Sarah Thornhill

Sarah Thornhill

by Kate Grenville


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“A wrenching conclusion to a tough-hearted trilogy . . . Exuberant, cruel, surprising, a triumphant evocation of a period and a people filled with both courage and ugliness.”— The New York Times Book Review

When The Secret River —a novel about frontier violence in early Australia—appeared in 2005, it became an instant best seller and garnered publicity for its unflinching look at Australia’s notorious history. It has since been published all over the world and translated into twenty languages. Grenville’s next novel, The Lieutenant, continued her exploration of Australia’s first settlement and again, caused controversy for its bold view of her homeland’s beginnings. Sarah Thornhill brings this acclaimed trilogy to an emotionally explosive conclusion.

Sarah is the youngest daughter of William Thornhill, the pioneer at the center of The Secret River. Unknown to Sarah, her father—an ex-convict from London—has built his fortune on the blood of Aboriginal people. With a fine stone house and plenty of money, Thornhill is a man who has reinvented himself. As he tells his daughter, he “never looks back,” and Sarah grows up learning not to ask about the past. Instead, her eyes are on handsome Jack Langland, whom she’s loved since she was a child. Their romance seems idyllic, but the ugly secret in Sarah’s family is poised to ambush them both.

As she did with The Secret River, Grenville once again digs into her own family history to tell a story about the past that still resonates today. Driven by the captivating voice of the illiterate Sarah—at once headstrong, sympathetic, curious, and refreshingly honest—this is an unforgettable portrait of a passionate woman caught up in a historical moment that’s left an indelible mark on the present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802121219
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/18/2013
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kate Grenville's works of fiction include The Secret River, winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book and short listed for the Man Booker Prize, and The Idea of Perfection, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in Sydney.

Visit her website at

Read an Excerpt


THE HAWKESBURY was a lovely river, wide and calm, the water dimply green, the cliffs golden in the sun, and white birds roosting in the trees like so much washing. It was a sweet thing of a still morning, the river-oaks whispering and the land standing upside down in the water.

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.

That made it a place with no grannies and no grandpas. No aunties, no uncles. No past.

Pa started a boatman on the Thames. Then he was sent out, what for I never knew. Eighteen-oh-six, Alexander transport. I was a pestering sort of child but that was all he'd ever say, sitting in the armchair smiling away at nothing and smoothing the nap of the velvet.

Thornhills was in a big way. Three hundred acres of good riverfront land and you had to go all the way up the river to Windsor before you saw a house grand as ours. Pa had got his start in the old Hope, carrying other men's grain and meat down the river to Sydney. Given that away, now he had his own corn and wheat, beef and hogs, and let other men do the carting of them.

But still a boatman at heart. Always a couple of skiffs down at the jetty, and when they put in the new road to the north he saw an opening, got a punt going. A shilling for a man, half a crown for a man on a horse, sixpence a head for cattle. Where you had people you needed an inn, so he built the Ferryman's Arms, had George Wheeler run it for him.

I never saw Pa lift an axe or carry a stick of firewood and he had other men now to do the rowing for him. Done enough work for any man's lifetime, he'd say. Of a morning he'd eat his breakfast, light his pipe, go out to where the men were standing with their hoes and spades. Jemmy Katter, Bob Dodd, Dickie Parson, three or four others. Assigned from Government, serving their time like he'd done. Sent out from London the most of them, never seen a spade in their lives before.

He'd set them to chipping between the corn rows, mucking out the hog-pens. Fill his pipe and stand watching them work. Point and call out if he thought they wasn't doing it right.

He made them call him sir. A flogging if they forgot.

When you done as well as Pa had, no one said sent out or worn the broad arrow. Now he was what they called an old colonist. Still plenty of folk who wouldn't put their feet under the same table as an emancipist or invite him into their house. As far as some people went, sent out meant tainted for all time. You and your children and your children's children. But for other folk, money had a way of blunting the hard shapes of the past. Dressing it up in different words.

Pa was Mr Thornhill of Thornhill's Point now, but he had some habits that were from before. Of an afternoon he'd get a bit of bread and go out on the verandah. Sit on a hard bench beside the window — didn't want a cushion — with the bread and a glass of rum-and-water beside him on the sill. He'd put his telescope up to his eye and look down the river where you'd see the boats from Sydney come round the last spur into Thornhill's Reach. Sliding up fast if the tide was with them, or having to get out the oars if it was sucking back out to sea. Other times he'd swing it round the other way, to the reedy place where the First Branch wound down from among the hills. But mostly he'd look straight across the river up at the line of bush along the top of the cliffs. Nothing up there, only rocks and trees and sky, but he'd sit by the hour watching, the leather worn through to the brass where his hand clamped round it.

* * *

I was born in the year eighteen-sixteen, Sarah Thornhill, named after my mother. She was Sarah but always called Sal. I was the baby of the family, why I was called Dolly.

Never liked Dolly. Never wanted to be a doll.

Next above me was Mary, nearly three years older and never let me forget it. Got the side of the bed near the fire. Pushed ahead when we went up the stairs. You know, silly things, but they matter when you're little.

I had three brothers too, all of them older.

Johnny was two years above Mary. Always with a scheme in his head. Got a lot of lemons once and rigged up a thing to get the juice. Begged some sugar from Ma, set up a stall down at the punt, made a shilling or two.

Bub was two years again above him. Even as a boy Bub was like an old man, sober and slow. Never went anywhere without a hoe and if he saw a thistle he'd stop and grub it out. It was him got the lemons for Johnny. Him got the hiding for it, too.

The oldest of us was Will. Fifteen when I was born and already out on the boats doing a man's work. Will was away more than he was home. Up and down the coast with the cedar. Over to New Zealand for the seals. Be away so long I'd think he was never coming back, half a year or more.

Captain Thornhill, people called him, though he was really only Will Thornhill who'd worked his way up. Never got his papers, nothing like that. Didn't read, see. None of us did.

Pa had no time for learning. Could sign his name but often said how a few acres and a flock of sheep was a better gift to your children than anything you'd get out of a book. When he needed something on paper he got old Loveday at Beckett's Reach to do it for him. Loveday had come free, could of done all right, but drank it all away in his miserable leaky hut. See, Pa would say. Old Loveday's not got the taint, but tell me this, you rather have his life or mine?

It was never spoke of, but Ma was not really our mother.

I had a few memories, sharp little pictures, of another mother. Will in the kitchen doorway and me sitting on the edge of the table working away at the peas in a pod while this other mother magicked them open down their backbone one by one with her thumbnail, the peas popping out into the blue-striped bowl with the grey chip on the edge. She sat puffing away on her pipe, doing the peas without having to look. The picture was so sharp it even had a smell, baccy and peas together. She'd take the pipe out of her mouth and sing, tuneless and wavery. Oranges and lemons, say the bells of Saint Clement's, she'd sing. You owe me five farthings, say the bells of Saint Martin's.

Will with his hands under my armpits, hoisting me in the air, the underside of the shingles swinging round, the pod clutched tight in my fist while the kitchen rolled up and down and under and over, and then I was back on the table with my mouth open, would I cry or laugh I didn't know, and Will was clattering at the stove, shouting and joking, head way up near the beams, and my mother with the peas all fallen in her pinny lap and not caring.

Then they brought me into a dark room, summer outside but all the curtains drawn across and the shutters closed, someone leading me by the hand over to the high bed where my mother lay, but I was frightened and shy, she was sweaty, her hair in strings, her cheeks sunk in, and her hand on the coverlet waxy and bony.

Whoever was with me, I could feel their hand at my back, pushing, they wanted me to kiss the yellow face on the pillow. Her eyes slid sideways at me, she was smiling, but her lips were so white and dry and her face nothing but wrinkled skin sliding over the bone. I pulled back, how could I kiss such a thing! Her hand crawled towards me over the coverlet and she touched me on the shoulder, top of the head, shoulder again, then the hand fell back and they let me go away.

Like a dream, that first mother melted away and there was another person we called Ma.

Pa had no stories but Ma had enough for the both of them. Turned over the places and names and dates like coins in her hand, counted and re-counted them for the pleasure of it. Her Daddy was in the sugar trade and she grew up in a house at Brixton-Hill, on the north side, that's the superior side. A husband something in the army, she was Margaret Grant. Come free to New South Wales along with him. Then he died.

I come up the river to help your pa, she'd say. Your mother too sick to care for a houseful of children. Then by and by we was wed.

I loved how neat it was, the way she told it, then and now stitched up tight.

Ma had a scurrying way with her, tilting forward from the waist like a hen in a hurry. Always putting something to rights. She never forgot the stain Pa carried. But the way she saw it, it was a wife's job to hide it, even if she couldn't wash it out.

She had a headful of all the things you did so no one would know you had the taint. Elbows off the table, remember Dolly, she'd say, and a well-bred person leaves a scrap on their plate. She'd be running after us with our bonnets when we went outside, did we want to look like blackfellows? Church, rain or shine, every Sunday, that fog of mothballs. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. Church was full of hard words, but those were plain small ones mortared together into something that nothing could get into or out of.

Pa did his best, but he'd forget. Eat off his knife, or say victuals, when Ma thought that was vulgar.

It's food, William, she'd say. Or comestibles.

By God Meg, he'd say. Combustibles is it?

He'd laugh, but then he'd reach over and touch her arm.

Oh, I'm an ignorant feller, he'd say. Lucky she took me, your ma.

Humour not Ma's long suit, but she'd smile then, and when she did that you could see what they shared. The two of them, no one else in the room.

I'd seen Pa drink out of the teapot spout, but when Ma was watching he cramped up his thick fingers into the silly little teacup handle. At table he'd work the silverware the way Ma liked, squash the peas onto the fork and line it up with the knife when he'd finished.

If we'd go to him about something he'd say, Best see what your Ma says. Not that he was a weak man, Pa. Not by any manner of means. But he'd done his bit. Got us the house, the land, the money. Found us a good mother. Now he could sit back. Knew Ma would see to it his children had a clean break with the past. Leave it behind the way he had.

Pa enjoyed his money. You once gone without, he'd say, you know it's better to have than not. The best if you can get it. The best meant meat every day. All the potatoes you could eat, with sweet fresh butter.

And oranges. Never seen an orange before I were twelve year old, he'd say, not to eat. It was a bit of joke between me and Mary, one of the things we did share. Every time Anne brought in a dish of oranges Pa would force his great square thumb into one and lever up a piece of peel. Never seen an orange before I were twelve year old, he'd say. Not to eat.

Mary and me would slip each other a look. She'd suck her lips into a fishmouth and I'd have to make out I was snorting because of my tea going down the wrong way.

Ma would give us the rounds of the kitchen later. Your pa known some hard times, she'd say. You silly girls don't know the half of it.

* * *

There was Mrs Devlin in the kitchen and Anne the maid-of-all-work. A woman once a week for the washing and a native boy for the wood. Still, girls of our class, well-off but not gentry, we learned all the household things. Mrs Devlin showed us how to do the bread and keep the yeast bottle going, the basic things like that, and Ma taught us the finer points, how to slice the bacon thin and the way to fold the flour into a sponge cake so it stayed light. Mary liked working in the kitchen, but I got sick of Mrs Devlin forever on about Mr Devlin that died, and Ma saying oh yes, how hard life was for a poor widder. I didn't want to spend my time sweating away at the stove, everything eaten by half past twelve and not a thing to show for it.

I learned how to make a loaf and pickle a brisket of beef and all the rest of it, because that's what a girl was supposed to know. But I'd get away soon's I could. I had a place of my own, a cave in the bush up behind the house. It was a steep scramble but not far. Close enough so I could be back if Ma called, she'd never know I was gone. Far enough, it was my own world. That country was full of overhangs where the soft yellow rock was worn away underneath, but this one was big enough to stand in and full of light the colour of honey. The floor level, soft with dry sand fallen from the roof, never wet by rain, not since the world began.

I set up house there, the way a child likes to do. Had a chipped teacup and a milk-jug with no handle and a dipper, because on top of the cave was a hole, made by man or nature I didn't know, that filled with sweet water after rain. The lip of the cave was on a level with the treetops. You could sit there and watch the breeze shivering through the leaves and the river beyond, a band of colour like a muscle. When you sat in the cave the bush sounds come to you sharper. It was like a big ear, listening.

Mary never wanted to go up there. Said she couldn't see why you'd want to climb up there and get all over prickles just to sit on the hard ground. That suited me. The birds were company enough. One I called the What Bird, it had a call like a question. Dit dit dit dit dit? it would go, and I'd screw my mouth round to answer, Dit dit dit dit?

I thought about flying, stood sometimes on the edge of the rock and wondered. But much as I'd of liked to, and young as I was, I had the sense to know I'd have to wait for some other way to fly.


NONE OF us Thornhills had our letters, but you didn't need a book to work out how to count, at least what you had the fingers for.

One day, I'd of been five or six, I went out to Pa on the verandah. A shiny morning, the river with a brush of wind on it that sent a handful of sparkles across the water.

I got three brothers, I said. See, Pa? I know how to count!

His face always seemed bigger than other people's. Big chin, big nose, big cheeks. And his eyes, the way one was a different shape from the other, that you only saw when he looked at you straight on. Which he did that time. Those blue eyes, and his mouth a funny shape.

No, Dolly, he said. You got four brothers.

Took a gulp of his rum-and-water so I could hear it go down his gullet as if it was having to find its way round something in there.

No, Pa, look, I got three, I said.

Showed him on my fingers.

Will, Bub, Johnny, I said. See?

You got four brothers, Dolly, he said. Only Dick's gone away for a time.

How come, I said. How come he went away? Where'd he go?

His face hardened down. I knew that meant trouble, told myself let it go!

When's he coming back, Pa? I said. When's Dick coming back?

Then he was on his feet, the glass knocked over, the bench clattering on the boards so the dust flew up and he was above me, his big face shouting down into mine. A dizzy ringing when his hand caught me across the side of the head, my ear making a high thin noise like something screaming a long way off.

That's enough, he said. Get away out of my sight, damn your eyes.

Pushed me, hard, so I stumbled through the doorway into the hall. Crept upstairs to the bedroom, Mary still dead asleep. Got in the bed, coiled myself up small as I could go, pulled the blanket over my head. In the stuffy dark I folded my fingers over one by one. Johnny, Bub, Will. One, two, three.

The rest of the day I kept out of Pa's way but after lunch I went looking for Will. He was in the old blue skiff, spokeshave in his hand and a bit of wood on his knees, making a new oar-blade.

Pa told me I got four brothers, I said. But I only got three.

Ready to show him on my fingers, but the spokeshave never paused, Will not looking up. All I could see was the top of his old cabbage-tree hat and his shoulders moving with each draw of the spokeshave, the white curls falling away around his feet.

Oh, well, he said. There was Dick. Between me and Bub. That'd be what Pa had in mind.

He dead? I said. Did he die?

Will lifted up the oar-blade, ran his finger over the edge, blew at it.

Not dead, he said. Went off.

Went off, I said. How's that, went off ? Went off how?

Dick was always a funny one, Will said. Had some funny ideas. Never knew which way he'd jump.

Didn't you like him, I said.

That made him look up. His eyes like Pa's, cold blue in his sunburnt face.

Not a matter of not like, he said. Dick and me never had too much to say to each other, all there is to it. Him and Pa, they didn't get on.


Excerpted from "Sarah Thornhill"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Kate Grenville.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A wrenching conclusion to a tough-hearted triology . . . Grenville shies away from nothing. . . . Exuberant, cruel, surprising, a triumphant evocation of a period and a people filled with both courage and ugliness."—The New York Times Book Review

"Laudable . . . exquisite and vibrant."—The Atlantic

"Both brilliant fiction and illuminating personal history."—The Independent

"Beautifully written . . . Can be read as a dissection of a cultural clash or an allegory for colonialism, but at heart, the novel uses fiction to search for reason within history."—Kirkus Reviews

“Grenville’s extraordinary trilogy is a major achievement in Australian literature.”—Australian Book Review

“It is with often marvelous vividness and clarity that Grenville evokes Sarah’s world. . . . Through the eyes of this young woman, the physical and cultural strangeness of a nation still clambering into existence spring richly to life.”— The Guardian

"[An] exceptional historical novel, with mutilayered characters and a beautifully styled plot."—Publishers Weekly

"Grenville's Early Australia trilogy comes to a brilliant conclusion. . . . Lovingly detailed . . . Full of fascinating characters."—Booklist

Sarah Thornhill displays [Grenville’s] gift for creating character full blaze. . . . A great work of truth . . . What unfolds is a box of surprises, richly wrapped in language so colorful and lively, you can taste it. . . . You believe in [Sarah’s] honesty, her perceptiveness, her way of ‘reading’ others. . . . A wonderful novel.”—The Scotsman

"Beautifully written and engrossing."—The Mail on Sunday (4 stars)

"I was thrilled to find myself back beside the river I’d come to know so well in The Secret River.The power with which Kate Grenville evokes places and people is so remarkable that I could remember the smell of the air there—and it was no surprise to discover that Sarah Thornhill’s story is as gripping and illuminating as her father’s was."—Diana Athill

“[A] powerful saga of colliding histories [that] blends romance and honesty.”—The Independent (Ireland)

“A moving piece of fiction . . . Powerfully realized . . . Sarah Thornhill is the book of a writer of the first rank. . . . A haunting performance.”—The Age (Australia)

“A beguiling love story . . . The voice of illiterate Sarah is Grenville’s great triumph. . . . An imaginatively convincing recreation of history and a celebration of country tenderly and beautifully observed, but above all it is a powerful plea for due acknowledgement and remembrance of the veils of the past.”—Adelaide Advertiser

"[A] captivating tale of a woman's fight to find an identity of her own in a 'new' colony. [Grenville's] wonderful account shows how hard it can be simply to be yourself. . . . A deeply moving conclusion to a romantic but by no means sentimental story."—The Telegraph

“Revisits the fascinating, trouble territory of the history wars. . . . Grenville’s vivid fiction performs as testimony, memory, and mourning within the collective post-colonial narrative.”—The Australian

“This is a beautiful book, one that pulses with insight and compassion . . . Grenville’s descriptions are a delicate fretwork of words. . . . 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

"Grenville's great strength is her sensual fleshing-out of the past. . . . Her vision of our colonial history is at once compelling and fable-like, as she writes contemporary white self-knowledge back into it."—The Monthly (Australia)

“[A] beautifully crafted historical reimagining.”—New Zealand Listener

“A strong and disturbing narrative.”—Sydney Morning Herald

"[Grenville had] a gift for eminently readable narrative. . . . Touching, truthful, and beautifully written, Sarah Thornhill exposes us to sickening events in early colonial Australia that may well have happened, and should never be forgotten. A must read."—Booktrust

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