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.

From the front page

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

cartoon:In light of recent events

In light of recent events

Who’s preferencing whom?

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Pigs might fly

Broken record

The ‘Guinness World Records’
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Dead, wrapped in cardboard

Daytime nightmares

Herta Müller’s ‘The Land of Green Plums’ and ‘The Passport’

Online exclusives

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?