December 2009 - January 2010

Arts & Letters

‘So This Is Life: Tales from a Country Childhood’ by Anne Manne

By Amanda Lohrey

Accounts of adult lives often lapse into flat chronicle mode. They can be partial in their truths – when not downright evasive – and constrained by concern for the sensitivities of the living, or the eagle eye of the defamation lawyer. But memoirs of childhood tend towards greater narrative urgency and emotional depth. The drama of being a child (to borrow from the title of psychologist Alice Miller’s famous work) and the formation of the individual’s subjectivity has been one of the great themes of modern literature since the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Anne Manne’s So This Is Life: Tales from a Country Childhood appears at first to belong to this tradition. It begins with a poignant scene in which the young Manne, her mother and two older sisters board a train for rural Victoria, leaving a failed marriage in Adelaide behind. Her mother, despite being a nonconformist with a postgraduate degree in philosophy, chooses to return to the bosom of her conservative rural family.

One of her first acts is to buy a horse for her daughters, although they are living in a miner’s cottage and are strapped for cash. The reader blanches as the girls are permitted to ride alone in the bush for hours on end, but Manne defends this as a “brilliant stroke”. Stricken by sadness and the absence of their brother, who has remained behind with the father, the girls embrace the horse as their salvation; they stop feeling like victims, begin to focus on the present rather than the past and become “bone hard and thin as whips”. For Manne in particular, the lone rides in the bush are a realm of contemplative freedom, “a kind of childhood Dreamtime”. She discovers a centaur self, “that open boundary of soul between animal and human”.

In her recollection of childhood, Manne doesn’t fall into the trap of rendering lengthy conversations she couldn’t possibly have remembered. She chooses instead to reflect on episodes of what she calls “emotional memory”, borrowing from Virginia Woolf’s concept of “moments of being” for her aesthetic rationale. This method works well in the account of her centaur life but tends to stall in the later sections. Here, we get a patchwork of vignettes and pen portraits: shabby genteel aunts, a Menzies-worshipping and rigidly controlling grandmother, and the odious squatter who gives Manne her first job as a ‘jillaroo’. Meanwhile, the most interesting figure in this landscape – the philosopher mother – remains an enigma; we learn of her failed attempt to bake a pavlova, but nothing of her intellectual physiognomy. What, I wondered, was she reading?

Another surprising gap is the lack of an account of the author’s passage through adolescence: what impact did the hormonal storm have on the child centaur? These jumps and gaps, and the lack of sustained themes, mean that, by its end, a work that began as forceful life writing – an account of one child’s mastery over loss – has broken up into that fragmented and less compelling genre: scenes from rural life.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

Cover: December 2009 - January 2010
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