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Aussie colonial trilogy ends with glimpse at healing

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Australian novelist Kate Grenville did something breathtaking with her powerful 2005 bestseller The Secret River, about the convicts who settled Australia in the early 19th century and their relationships with the aboriginal people.

With empathy and without judging, she took readers on a journey that ended in a bloody massacre. Following The Lieutentant in 2008, she now concludes her colonial trilogy with her latest novel, and though it is a slight disappointment, we glimpse through its title character what it could take to heal a nation.

Sarah Thornhill is the youngest daughter of former convict turned land baron, William Thornhill, the central character in The Secret River. Sarah is part of the first generation of whites born free in Australia. She is wealthy, privileged and in love with Jack Langland, who is half-aboriginal.

But Sarah doesn't know what readers of The Secret River know. Her father committed a horrifying crime so he could claim his land. Sarah doesn't know because she doesn't ask -- her ignorance is the silence of the next generation, the silence that allows Australia to build a nation while destroying a race.

Sarah Thornhill is a direct sequel to The Secret River, but it is actually the third book in Grenville's trilogy. Before tackling William Thornhill's bloody legacy, Grenville, who bases much of her work on research into her own colonial roots, went back in time to the first penal colony in Australia (or New South Wales as it was then called) with The Lieutenant.

In The Lieutenant, Grenville took us to a time when there was the possibility of communication and partnership between the colonists and the aboriginals. In The Secret River that moment has passed, and the novel explodes in violence and bloodshed.

The Lieutenant and The Secret River (the latter shortlisted for Britain's Man Booker Prize in 2006), are stunning works of historical fiction. Grenville did a brilliant job of vividly creating characters struggling with the decisions they make to build a better world for themselves and their families.

Each novel in the trilogy is a stand-alone. You don't have to read the first two to enjoy Sarah Thornhill. But it is advised, as Sarah Thornhill is the weakest link. It is a much more forgiving read if you have read at least The Secret River.

But despite its rushed feel, Sarah Thornhill has enough powerful moments to make it a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. You just need to make it past Sarah's clichéd adolescent love affair with Jack: "I'd only been awake half my life, only half alive.... I'd never imagined that a person could blaze like this, with bliss. Thought, I can die now. Nothing better will ever happen."

But once Jack discovers Thornhill's bloody secret and rejects Sarah, the story takes off. The strength of the novel then lies in Sarah's moral struggle. Sarah can choose to continue the legacy of silence -- or she can face and try to atone for the horrors her father inflicted on the aboriginals.

Grenville's Australian trilogy has Canadian counterparts in Joseph Boyden's novel about aboriginal snipers, Three Day Road, and Lawrence Hill's epic of an African slave woman's journey, The Book of Negroes.

Like those two authors, Grenville brings alive a world most of us only know through dry history books.

Sarah Thornhill is strongest as the protagonist matures and begins to understand the price paid for her comfort. But most important, Grenville, in much the same way Boyden and Hill have done, has effectively illustrated the vital importance of the human voice.

Sarah Thornhill is ultimately about how silence is destructive, and how you can only reclaim your humanity when you speak the truth.


Joanne Kelly is a journalism instructor at Red River College. Follow her at joannemkelly@twitter.con

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 J8

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