Last Sunday morning I did something I haven’t done for years – lay in bed reading a book and didn’t move until I’d finished it. And then I went to lunch with friends giddy with the sort of ecstasy you only get from reading a truly gripping, extraordinary book. The book was Kate Grenville‘s new novel Sarah Thornhill, the sequel to The Secret River.
The first Kate Grenville novel that really got under my skin – much to my surprise, because I don’t usually read Australian historical fiction (although I’m now a bit obsessed with it and will write here about my passion for Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance some time) – was The Secret River. I was captivated from its opening pages, set by the Thames in early 19th century London, and was fascinated by the story of William Thornhill, transported in 1806 to New South Wales for theft, accompanied by his wife, and their gradual eking out of a life on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney.
For that reason, when I was asked to talk to Kate Grenville at Gleebooks about the sequel to The Secret River, I said yes immediately, with great excitement. Which is how I came to be reading Sarah Thornhill last Sunday.
And ever since I finished reading Sarah Thornhill, I’ve been wondering how I’m going to talk to Kate about it at Gleebooks, because I don’t want to say anything about it if there’s anyone in the audience who hasn’t already read it. I don’t want to spoil a word of it. I almost don’t want to say how much I loved it, in case I raise the hopes of potential readers too high. It is a novel full of plot twists and narrative suspense, and I think I was lucky to have read it without knowing a thing about it.
This has made me think about book reviewing more generally – and makes me realise that this is why I so rarely read book reviews of fiction, unless I’ve already read the book under discussion. I don’t want one word of a novel to be breathed before I absorb it myself straight from the author. (I tried to avoid this problem in Classics and Australian Classics by talking less about the books themselves and more about their authors’ lives and times, their reception and influence.)
So I’m not going to talk about Sarah Thornhill here. I’ll just say that it’s my favourite ever novel by Kate Grenville, with a heart wrenching love story and fascinating and disturbing insights into relations between the early settlers of New South Wales and the existing inhabitants of the Hawkesbury region, among many other things. It is also told in the first person, by Sarah Thornhill, a woman and one of the first generation of British colonists to be born in Australia – it is a voice that as far as I know has not been heard in Australian fiction before. Here’s how it opens:
‘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.
They called us the Colony of New South Wales. I never liked that. We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves.’
I’ll be talking to Kate Grenville about Sarah Thornhill at Gleebooks on Monday 14 November 2011, at 6 for 6.30 pm. It’s a free event.