Notes for Book Groups
The Lost Voices:
Kate Grenville has said that one of the things she was trying to do in Sarah Thornhill was to give a voice to people whose experiences weren’t recorded. Their lives have disappeared without leaving any of their individuality behind. In Sarah Thornhill, she’s tried to imagine the experiences of uneducated country women of the nineteenth century. Her own great-grandmother was one such woman.
Do some of you have family stories passed down from generation to generation? If you do, how many of them are passed down along the female line, from mother to daughter? How many of the stories are about the women and their experiences of life?
What novels and stories can you think of that portray the lives of Australian women in the nineteenth century?
How many of them are about well-off women of the gentry class?
Can you think of any books or poems that tell the story of uneducated, Australian-born country women in a way that shows them as fully rounded characters with an inner life? Or do they tend to be flat background characters?
Do you think Kate Grenville is right in thinking that their stories are among the “lost lives” of the past? And if they are, is it a worthwhile project to try to find them and give them a voice?
Do you find the portrayal of Sarah Thornhill as an illiterate Australian-born woman convincing? Do you believe that such a woman would have had the insights and imagination that Sarah Thornhill has? Or do you feel Sarah is too “modern” and too insightful for an uneducated country girl?
Did you find yourself re-drawing your stereotype of “the pioneer woman” as you read?
Part of this novel explores experiences that are rarely described in fiction: for example, childbirth and being the mother of an infant. Why do you think that in the past these big dramas have been mostly absent from fiction?
What about the men in the book – also mostly illiterate? Did you find her portrayal of Jack Langland, William Thornhill, and Dick, convincing as individuals rather than representatives of a “type”?
Challenges in the writing
Kate Grenville has pointed to two particular problems she had in writing this book: the voice and the plot.
Because Sarah Thornhill is a first-person story, it’s told in her own voice. Why do you think it might be difficult to imagine the world of a person who can’t read or write, and to write a convincing voice for that person?
Being literate has obvious disadvantages, but do you think that there might also be some unexpected advantages (remembering rather than relying on writing things down; thinking things through for yourself rather than being influenced by other people’s opinions…?) We live in an age of constant communication – might there be losses to us in that, as well as gains?
The plot of Sarah Thornhill is tightly knitted – all the strands connect and are dependent on each other. (Imagine the book without Rachel, or without Dick, both relatively minor characters, but vital to the plot.)
The classic plot is often thought of as “orientation” (setting the scene); “complication” (something intrudes into the scene that creates a problem); “response” (what the characters do about this problem) and “resolution” (how the problem is finds a resolution or a new equilibrium). Does the plot of Sarah Thornhill follow this pattern? Are there several plots, each working through its own pattern?
Some books tell you what the characters are like, the narrative filling in their background and telling you what they’re thinking. With a first-person story like Sarah Thornhill, the reader sees everything through the narrator’s eyes, and there’s no outside story-telling voice to give the reader a more objective view of characters and events. Do you think this is a weakness in a story, or does it make it more realistic (since in life we only have our own subjective view of things)?
Sarah is about 15 when she and Jack consummate their love. She’s about 18 when she gets married, and is only about 23 at the end of the book. This is a story about a very young women, a teenager for much of the book. Do you think this would be a useful or interesting book for today’s teenagers?
This is a book about a woman, told from her point of view. Do you think this is an obstacle for men to enjoy the book? Do you think men might be put off by such a “woman’s” book? Are women put off by reading books about men?
At one level, Sarah Thornhill is about love. There’s the “thunderclap” passionate love that Sarah and Jack experience. Then there’s the “slow-fuse” kind of love that Sarah finds with John Daunt. Are these two different kinds of love true to your experience? Do you think that this book has a “happy ending” in the sense that the love Sarah finds with Daunt might be more substantial than the love she and Jack shared? What problems do you think might lie ahead for them, given the differences in class and education between Sarah and John Daunt?
At another level, Sarah Thornhill is about family secrets, and what happens when they come out. Do most families have a secret, do you think? Should they sometimes stay hidden, or is it better to bring the skeletons out of the cupboard? Was it for better or worse that Sarah discovered the secret in her father’s life?
Did her father want the secret to be discovered, as Sarah thinks? Was sending Sarah to fetch Dick really his way of confession?
At another level again, Sarah Thornhill is about the hidden aspects of a nation’s past. The secret in Sarah’s family is the same secret that for generations lay unspoken about in Australian history – the story of the “frontier war” between the first Australians and the colonists, which was largely ignored or forgotten until historians brought it to light towards in the end of the twentieth century.
Do you think that on this level Sarah represents present-day Australians, in that she has to think through what to do with the knowledge she’s just learned?
She reponds by being more generous in giving charity to the indigenous people nearby, and also in making sure the story isn’t lost again. Do you think these responses are appropriate? Are they enough? Is there some other response she could have made? Or do you think that her sense of shame isn’t appropriate, since she wasn’t the person who committed the violence?
The story of Sarah’s niece, taken away from her extended family and her language, has echoes of Australia’s “stolen generations”. Some would argue that children were removed from their indigenous families “for their own good”, as Sarah’s Ma and Pa think. Jack, though of mixed descent himself, agrees. Yet the separation was a disaster for the little girl, as it was for many of the “stolen generations”. When people do the “wrong” thing for the “right” reasons, what attitude might we take towards them? Do you think this book is making a judgement on the characters, or is it exploring the moral tangle they find themselves in?
A “historical novel”?
Kate Grenville has said she doesn’t enjoy reading “historical fiction” because she doesn’t know where the history ends and the fiction begins. She describes Sarah Thornhill as “not a historical novel, but a novel set in the past”. What distinction do you think she’s making?
She’s also said that she’s “not especially interested in the past for its own sake, but in how it’s shaped the present.” Do you think Sarah Thornhill is about the present, as much as the past?
Sarah Thornhill is the third of a trilogy about colonial Australia. It’s also a stand-alone novel. In terms of the reading experience, what difference do you think it would make to have read either or both of the earlier novels before reading Sarah Thornhill, compared to reading this novel without having read the others? Would one be a stronger experience than the other, or does each have its own adantages?
Do you think The Lieutenant is really part of this trilogy, since it’s not about the Thornhill family, as the other two books are? Why do you think it’s included in the trilogy?
Could there be another book in the series, do you think? What might it be about? Or does this third book "close the circle" set up by the two earlier books?