Sarah Thornhill is an example of historical fiction which feels like a reflection of the reality of the time – although the author’s Acknowledgements suggest that this is a controversial position: Sarah Thornhill, youngest daughter of emancipated convict William Thornhill who we met in The Secret River, growing up on the family estate on the banks of the Hawkesbury river, falling in love with a neighbour Jack Langland and discovering that his mixed race – European father and Aborigine mother – does make a difference in her second generation colonial world. As Sarah matures we’re shown the parallels between the English colonisation of Ireland and the Australian colonies, the links between NSW and New Zealand and the contrasting experiences of Aborigine and Maori encounters with the first and second generation colonials.
Another fabulous book about early European settlers in Australia from Kate Grenville. In The Lieutenant, astronomer-linguist-scientist Daniel Rooke tells of his encounters with members of the Cadigal people of New South Wales.
Lilian Singer’s life stretches from an Edwardian middle class childhood in semi-rural suburbia to being a bag lady in central Sydney. En route, Kate Grenville describes the transition from awkward debutante teen to mental breakdown and institutionalisation, first in a mental asylum and, in later years, prison. Lilian is not an immediately appealing character and her story is not an obviously happy one, but by the end of the book I was in tears, but half-happy ones.
Having enjoyed The Idea of Perfection I decided to try The Secret River, and found it an excellent read. Set in the late 18th/early 19th century, it follows the descent into poverty and crime of Thames waterboatman William Thornhill, culminating in Will’s being transported to Australia, and fortunately (for him) his childhood sweetheart Sal and wife was allowed to follow.
The New South Wales section of the novel is a reflection of the London opening – seeing roles reversed and the family slowly but surely pulling themselves out of penury in this strange new land of heat and big skies. Their relationships with the local aborigine peoples of the Hawkesbury River provide a whole range of reflections – cultural, personal, political – not just between the native population and the European settlers, but between the incomers themselves, highlighting the range of approaches and opinions across the generations.