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"Sarah Thornhill" by Kate Grenville

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Multiple award-winning author Kate Grenville completes her acclaimed early-Australia trilogy with Sarah Thornhill. This is the story of the eponymous heroine and it wraps up the overarching narrative of Will Thornhill’s family – Will who was transported to Australia as a convict in 1806 – and it contains a highly satisfying, balanced, and beautiful denouement for all that went before.

As the life of a strong-willed woman, Sarah Thornhill contains some vivid and pitch-perfect scenes throughout. She is thwarted in love early on, and the author sets these scenes in an appropriately high melodrama. The tone subtly and gradually calms for Sarah, as she agrees to marry landowner John Daunt a few years later, and settle at his station to her lot of toil and family-raising. But Ms. Grenville’s theme of the treatment and mistreatment of Aborigines drives this trilogy, and reaches if not a full atonement, then at least Sarah’s contrite and climactic offering on a far-off New Zealand shore during a ceremony honoring a dead Maori girl.

Sarah’s odyssey and expiation exhaust her, and Ms. Grenville’s treatment of the climax here deserves every honor and accolade. Her character doesn’t really do enough – she will never fully forgive herself for her unwitting participation in slaughter – but she does everything she can. She empties herself of her story, weeps openly before
the village’s women for its fatal history. The native women understand and accept her offering and her tears, and the emotionally drained heroine goes back to the shore in the nighttime. Here she once again reflects on the grand universe, in which she knows she and her family are as nothing, mattering not at all. In truth, not enough can ever be done about humanity’s rapacious nature and the conclusion of this book treats this truth with respect and rectitude. There is no neat wrapping-up and cleansing-of-hands here. The author is too wise and compassionate for that.

Sarah Thornhill concludes this trilogy in the only way that seems possible. The Europeans who plunder and occupy Australia are wise enough in Sarah’s case to understand the enormity of their sin, and must live with the dark knowledge. Read this trilogy for its comprehensive and highly artful treatment of this chapter in history. It is outstanding.
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