Francesca Rendle-Short, Bite your tongue (Review)
How much do you think about the first sentence of your review? Like me, you probably try to find some anchor or point of interest to lead off from, but my problem with novelist-journalist Francesca Rendle-Short‘s fiction-cum-memoir, Bite your tongue, is that I have too many angles to choose from. Which one do I use? Do I go with the unusual form of this fiction-cum-memoir? Do I talk about my old friend synchronicity and how one of my first reviews in 2011 was a (semi)autobiographical novel about an Australian childhood, Barbara Hanrahan‘s The scent of eucalyptus? Or, do I talk about how I’m sure Spinifex Press had no idea how close to my heart this book would be when they offered it for review – how I (more or less) share a late 1950s/early 60s Brisbane childhood with Rendle-Short and how the very word “spinifex” is nostalgic for me due to my mid-1960s years in the mining town of Mount Isa? There, I’ve covered them all … so now I can get on with the review!
This is a mother-daughter story. How many of those have you read? I’ve certainly read a few in the last decade or so, including straight memoirs (such as Jill Ker Conway‘s The road from Coorain) and thinly veiled fictional pieces (such as Kate Jennings‘ Snake). These books can be challenging for daughters to write, particularly when there is significant pain involved. Rendle-Short’s solution is to (mostly) tell from a “fictional” standpoint. She creates names for the family, including MotherJoy for the mother, Glory for herself, Gracie for her nearest and youngest sister, and Onward for her father. The last-name she devises for this family is Solider, which is an anagram of “soldier”. With the father being Onward, and the family being devoutly Christian, the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” must surely have inspired her naming. Rendle-Short writes, in the introduction, about how she chose to tell the story:
Some stories are hard to tell, they bite back. To write this one, I’ve had to come at it obliquely, give myself over to the writing with my face half-turned; give my story to someone else to tell. My chosen hero is a girl named Glory …
Why is this story so hard to tell? Well, Glory’s (Rendle-Short’s) mother was “a morals crusader, an ‘anti-smut’ campaigner. An activist. She was on a mission from God to save the children of Queensland” (from the Prologue). This mission involved banning “lewd” and “pornographic” books (of which 100 are listed at the back of the book in “Dr Joy’s Death List: Burn a Book a Day”). Clearly Rendle-Short (aka Glory), the fifth of six children (all girls in the book, five girls and a boy in reality), had a painful childhood. It’s not that she and her siblings weren’t loved – they clearly were – but it was a hard love, a love based too much on a narrow Christian ideology and too little, it seems, on the needs of children. One of the most painful scenes in the book is when Glory visits her mother in hospital after heart surgery and wants to kiss her but can’t bring herself to do so! Can’t kiss her old mother! That shows more than words ever could the pain in this relationship.
The book pretty well covers the story from Glory’s birth to MotherJoy’s death in her 80s, though it focuses primarily on Glory’s school years. There are 100 chapters in less than 250 pages. Most of these chapters are told third person, from Glory’s point of view. What makes this book particularly interesting form-wise, though, is that 14 chapters are written in first person, memoir-style. That is, Francesca speaks of herself and her mother, Angel, using their real names. In these scattered first person chapters, Francesca writes on her research, on how she pieced together her mother’s story through, for example, research at the National Library of Australia and the National Archives of Australia. She also occasionally comments on where the “fact” diverges from the “fiction” such as:
Unlike Glory, I wasn’t in Brisbane when my mother died, I was at home in Canberra where I was living at the time – because there was a scene. There was always a scene with Angel, especially where her children were concerned, the ‘jewels in her crown’, and on her deathbed it was no different. All six children had been at her bedside while she was dying …
And then, without describing exactly what happened, she tells us that, despite all of them having made the effort to get there, including from overseas, “seven days before she took her last breath, all six of us walked out on her. We had to do it …”.
Now, if you are a reader who likes closure, who wants to know exactly what happened, you are not going to get it in this book, not specifically anyhow, but you will, if you read the clues, know what life was like in that family, at least what it was like for Glory/Francesca. You will know that she loved her mother, and wanted her mother’s approval, but that she had other attitudes and other feelings that were clearly not in accord with her mother’s. We are given enough “scenes” involving her mother (directly or indirectly) to tell us all we need to know. A particularly excruciating example is when Glory is cruelly bullied by her school “peers” (one can’t say ”mates” in the context) because of her mother’s views. (Where her father, an academic in pediatrics and a creationist, stood in all this is unclear. He’s there in the book, but we see little active parenting from him.)
Oh dear, I have so much to say on this book that I could easily turn this post into an essay, so I will finish here. I thoroughly enjoyed this book … on multiple levels. The writing is good, comprising many of the things that appeal to me – wordplay, lovely rhythm, effective imagery (such as the “tongue” motif). The story is easy to follow, despite changes in voice and chronology (as we flip backwards and forwards from childhood to MotherJoy/Angel’s old age). There are universals about love and forgiveness (real and wished for) between parents and children. And, there is love for books (in all their glory!):
Books show us how to love, really love body to body between the pages. Love perhaps where we’ve never loved before. That’s what Glory hopes.
Reading changes things …
… as, I suspect for Rendle-Short, does writing!
Bite your tongue
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2011
(Review copy supplied by Spinifex Press.)
Review to count towards the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge.