Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Sarah Thornhill

by Kate Grenville

“A wrenching conclusion to a tough-hearted trilogy . . . 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

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date June 11, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2121-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $15.00

About The Book

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 brazen 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.

Tags Literary


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

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

“Laudable . . . exquisite and vibrant.” —The Atlantic

“Both brilliant fiction and illuminating personal history.” —Arifa Akbar, 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 (starred review)

“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.” —Belinda McKeon, 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.” —Ellen Loughran, 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.” —Tom Adair, 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.” —Dr. Mary Shine Thompson, 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.” —Mark Sanderson, 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.” —Stella Clarke, 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.” —Delia Falconer, 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


A New York Times Editors’ Choice
An ALA Reading List title
Winner of the Australia General Fiction Book the Year Award (Sydney Writers’ Festival)
Short-listed for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction
Long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award


None of us Thornhills had our letters, but you didn’t need a book to work out how to count, at least as far as you had the fingers for. One day, I’d of been five or six, I went out to Pa on the veranda to show off.

“I got three brothers,” I said. “See, Pa? I can count, can’t I?” 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.

“No, Dolly,” he said. “You got four brothers.” He 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.

“No, Pa, look, I got three,” I showed him on my fingers.

“Will, Bub, Johnny, see?”

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

“How come? Where’d he go?” His face hardened down, and I knew that meant trouble, told myself, let it go.

“When’s Dick coming back, Pa?” I said. Then he was on his feet, the glass knocked over, the bench clattering on the boards so dust flew up and he was above me. 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.

Reading Group Guide

1. “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” (p. 3). How does this sanctity of the land pervade the novel? For which characters is the land most important? When is it desecrated and why?

2. “Three Irish in a house together, can’t go long without some of the old songs. . . . Paddy . . . stood in the corner with his eyes closed and out of the fiddle came a wild keening voice . . . After a time Maeve lifted up her voice and sang along with the fiddle, the words caressing the music as it went up and down. . . . And there was Daunt . . . the tears stand glittering in his eyes. . . . I was the only one dry-eyed. That was what it was to belong to a place. To be brought undone by the music of the land where you’d been born. Us currency lads and lasses had no feeling like that about the land we call ours. It had no voice that we could hear, no song we could sing. Nothing but a blank where the past was. Emptiness, like a closed room, at our backs” (pp. 196-197). How does this emptiness propel Sarah’s search for meaning in the book?

3. Have you ever read a novel whose characters are complex and subtle, yet totally illiterate? Is it surprising there is no culture of books or schools in the Thornhill family? How does living with Daunt and his books affect Sarah? “Gone away into reading like another country where I could never follow” (p. 197).

4. When there is no written history, how is knowledge of the past further complicated by secrets and tangled suppositions? What are some of these secrets and suppositions?

5. Will Sarah’s compulsion to tell her story and that of her family force her to learn her letters? “But of all the crimes done, the worst would be to let the story slip away. For what it’s worth, mine had best take its place, in with all the others” (p. 304).

6. William Thornhill was a man who “never looked back” (p. 3). He is who he is, someone who has to create his own story and legacy. “As far as some people went, ‘sent out’ meant tainted for all time” (p. 5). How do success and money have a way of blunting the hard shapes of the past? Consider the transformation of “emancipist” into “old colonist.”

7. What is one part of his past that Thornhill cannot ignore? “So what was that terrible twisting across his face? That thing that was like an animal eating away at him from the inside?” (p. 30).

8. What are the varying attitudes toward native people? Mrs. Thornhill? Mrs. Langland? Maeve? And how about Daunt? He says “These are folk too clever to break their backs heaving dirt. I’ve come round to the view that a man shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to judge them. I’d say no more than this, that their ways are not the same as our ways” (p. 211). Is his tolerance shared by others? How has Anglo-Irish history shaped his views? (see p. 218).

9. What draws Sarah and Jack together? What do they have in common in their young childhood? What is Will’s role in their growing closeness?

10. Does Sarah ever grow to see a validation of her parents’ separating her from Jack? How did they accomplish this split?

11. When Sarah makes her extraordinary journey to New Zealand, what motivates her to abandon child and husband for the dangerous sea voyage? Is it expiation? For her? For her father? Sarah goes to give. What does she gain?

12. What is Jack’s role in Sarah’s quest to New Zealand? “Would there never be an end to it, the hole in my life where Jack should of been?” (p. 209).

13. How do the native New Zealand traditions incorporate and pass on events of the past? Consider both the songlines and the visible story lines of the tattoos.

14. What are the ways Jack reclaims his own maternal heritage? Has his own quest, one that required his rejecting the Langland family and the only world he can remember, resulted in peace and belonging for him? Do you think his seafaring years provided him fortitude?

15. Grenville speaks in her acknowledgments notes about “the possibility of a story that was not just about the past, but the present and its unfinished business” (p. 307). What is suggested about the larger world, not only Australia and New Zealand? Does Sarah herself grow to take comfort in feeling like part of a bigger world, one that existed before her and would exist long after?

16. Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore wrote that Britain “had hoped that transportation would do four things: sublimate, deter, reform, and colonize.” From what you know about Australia, was the policy a success?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

The Voices by Susan Elderkin; Dirt Music by Tim Winton; Cloudstreet by Tim Winton; The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes; Great Expectations by Charles Dickens; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.