Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s most well known and prolific authors of Australian literature. To date she has published eight works of fiction and four that explore the writing process. Her latest novel, Sarah Thornhill, has just been released. It is the sequel to one of Grenville’s most successful novels: The Secret River (2005).
A deeply moving story that traces the journey of one William Thornhill to the shores of Australia, The Secret River is a story in search of the truth, a quest mirrored by Grenville’s own determination to discover her ancestors and their story. While the novel certainly has a historical framework, the story is fictional, and its emphasis is unwaveringly on Grenville’s commitment to examining how historical information is altered, withheld or kept ‘secret’ from those who deserve to know the truth.
Widely studied in schools and universities, The Secret River is chronologically preceded by the Lieutenant (2008). Sarah Thornhill is the final volume of the trilogy, launched in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers Festival.
Grenville’s writing has developed out of an urgency to tell Australia a story. She expresses a desire to tell not just any story, but one that has been unspoken and unheard for a very long time.
“I went through a process of re-learning our history. Personally, I wanted to know what part does my family history play in the colonisation of this land and I believe this is a desire that is shared amongst many of my generation – because we had a history that was whitewashed.”
Unfortunately, the situation has not vastly improved. Grenville’s latest novel focuses upon the journey of a young woman who is a member of the first generation of Australian born Anglo immigrants. In uncovering the secrets that have remained hidden in her past, Sarah Thornhill challenges the reader to question and re-examine the authority of history written from a single perspective.
“There are many secrets that have been kept from our knowledge. History isn’t always factual or accurate and there is a dark history, a legacy that we must confront in order to accept who we are.”
Personal reasons motivated Grenville to begin research into her own history and her time in England and the USA was key to developing the need to write these novels: “It took being physically displaced from my country and in a position to look back at different ideas that motivated me to start writing. At that time there wasn’t much Australian literature and when I returned in the early 1980s it was almost as though Australia had suddenly realised that we don’t want to be second hand Brits. The colonial time was over. It was an exciting time to be an Australian writer.”
Discovering links to her own grandfather, one Solomon Williamson, gave her breadth and scope to develop the characters of William Thornhill. Th is character (who shares only certain similar attributes to Grenville’s ancestor) is the father of the young Sarah Thornhill, who stands on the precarious edge of truth about her history.
“The greatest wrong when discussing the history of this country is to deny that any wrong has been done,” emphasises Grenville, “As non-Indigenous, we do a lot of talking, but the idea of sitting down and listening doesn’t seem to happen all that oft en. The appropriate starting point is to properly acknowledge the past.”
Kate Grenville is a proud Australian writer and she urges other young and emerging writers to recognize that “Australia is a land of myth, legend and metaphor and the Australian voice is vibrant and appropriate.”