A riveting narrative unfolds into a chilling allegory of the mechanics and the psychology of colonialism in the veteran Australian author’s rich historical novel.
In a follow-up to her Orange Prize–winning The Idea of Perfection (2002), Grenville reaches back to Australia’s origins, in an expansive tale similar in plot and theme to Patrick White’s 1976 masterpiece, A Fringe of Leaves. It’s the story of William Thornhill, a London bargeman who turns to petty crime after an impoverished childhood and when marriage and paternity severely test his survival skills. Sentenced to death for theft (he stole a load of wood), he receives a commutation of his sentence thanks to the emotional importunings of his devoted wife Sal, and when he is “transported” to New South Wales as a convict laborer, William’s family dutifully accompanies him. Australia beckons as a land of opportunity, though the hamlet of Sydney is at this time (1806) little more than a cluster of crude huts. William adapts to this strange new environment, following the examples of other convicts and fortune-hunters, and stakes out a parcel of land (shaped, with fine symbolic irony, like a man’s thumb), grandly naming it Thornhill’s Point. Then things begin unraveling. Native aborigines who already inhabit the land, and to whom the concept of ownership is utterly alien, are initially passive, then resentful, eventually confrontational. Misunderstandings crop up and multiply, and subsequent actions lead to a horrific massacre—in which William grimly, reluctantly participates. His “triumph” is plaintively contrasted to the stoical endurance of the aborigine Jack, the lone survivor of the massacre, who possesses a primal connection to the land and its spirit that William’s act of “ownership” can never displace. No fingers are pointed: We understand only too well what brought these people together and then thrust them apart, and the story’s resolution achieves genuine tragic grandeur.
Grenville’s best, and a giant leap forward.