April 2015


‘One Life: My Mother’s Story’ by Kate Grenville

By Helen Elliott
Text; $29.99

The non-famous children of famous writers often write books about their parents: Susan Cheever, Alexandra Styron, Greg Bellow spring to mind. Kate Grenville reverses this; she is famous, her mother is not.

Grenville achieved her fame with books that recast Australian history with their forensic and intimate searching. Lilian’s Story, her inventive first novel, used the figure of Bea Miles, familiar to Sydneysiders as the classic madwoman or, more kindly, “eccentric”, to ask some fascinating questions. How did an intelligent, educated, perceptive woman end up as she did? Did the culture of the time straitjacket her?

Thirty years later, Grenville applies these same questions to her mother. In 1912, a decade after the birth of Bea Miles, Nance was born into a family of rural working people who eventually came to own, and later lose, a country pub. Nance was clever, but the longed-for education was not a given. Why her parents were so shiftless, or why every time her mother called her name it sounded like “an accusation”, Nance never knew.

She became a pharmacist, but it was against her nature; Nance loved poetry and had always wanted to write. After she died, her daughter found a trove of her fits and starts with writing, and these fragments bring into luminous focus this ordinary, exceptional woman.

“Who was my mother?” is the belated question many people ask, and Grenville’s warmth and determination, qualities inherited from her mother, conjure Nance into being. The twin vessels of love and sorrow contain a daughter’s imagining of her mother, beginning with Nance’s unpromising start in life with a mother incapable of attentive love. Alas, she would not get it from the men in her life either, even though she herself was capable of immense love. She had an extraordinary intelligence and vitality but was destined for a narrow and conventional life: she worked, studied, didn’t suicide, married, had children, built houses and businesses, divorced, had grandchildren. The concept of “deserving” would have caused Nance puzzled laughter.

Memoir and biography can slump into sentimentality, blame or mourning, but not in these deft hands. The writing glides, egoless, through this one life that adapted to the massive changes of a century. There are no profound psychological insights, no heartfelt revelations, but I closed the book with regret, wanting more and remembering George Eliot’s observation at the end of Middlemarch: “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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