Francesca Rendle-Short, Bite your tongue (Review)

Francesa Rendle-Short book cover Bite your tongue

Bite your tongue Bookcover (Courtesy: Spinifex Press)

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 JenningsSnake). 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 …

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Reading Matters’ Australian Literature Month

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 …”.

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Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book’dout – Shelleyrae)

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!

Francesa Rendle-Short
Bite your tongue
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2011
ISBN: 9781876756963

(Review copy supplied by Spinifex Press.)

Review to count towards the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge.

34 thoughts on “Francesca Rendle-Short, Bite your tongue (Review)

  1. Sounds like a beautiful spirited book. I don’t know how you get through so many! Must catch up with your blog as I have had a long school holiday break – madness!

  2. Great review. Makes me want to read it. It sounds interesting in both form and content. Jeanette Winterson’s latest sounds similar in theme ‘Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?’ about her tyrant mother – looking forward to reading that too

    • Ah, that sounds interesting Valerie, particularly since I’ve read Oranges are not the only fruit. It would be interesting to see how much she revisits old ground and how much this is on a different tangent.

  3. What an interesting sounding book! The structure is particularly interesting with the real memoir inserted as chapters into the story. Were the memoir chapters spread out? How do they affect the flow of the story? Did you find they also colored your reading of the fiction portions?

    • Good questions Stefanie … yes, they were spread out, fairly evenly but not rigorously regularly so that they felt mechanical. Because the chronology is somewhat broken – we flip between Glory’s growing up and the years surrounding her mother’s death, the insertion of the memoir chapters felt fine. Some commented on what had just gone on eg the first time it occurs she had just talked about going to church and then the memoir chapter that follows starts, “In my family we also went the church every Sunday” and adds the “factual” info which reinforces the “feelings” conveyed in the novelistic chapters. The memoir chapters also often have photos. Other memoir chapters convey or describe the research background to the topics just being covered. I suppose it might interrupt the flow for people who want a pageturning “story” but it doesn’t I think for people who like to be intrigued by what they are reading. In a sense they coloured the fiction chapters, but I guess they were intended to … they help ground us in the reality of/truth behind the fiction, if that makes sense!

  4. Pingback: Dabbling in writing by Australian women #1 | Reactions to Reading

  5. I enjoyed this review of ‘Bite Your Tongue’.

    You’re right that it’s a wonderful book: so brave, and poetic, a tough story, but full of heart. Even though I have no connection to Queensland in the 1960s and the conservatism – both political and religious – of those times, I still relate to the story, because, at its core, the book is about how parents raise children, the choices they make, and then the choices the children make when they in turn are adults. Choices are fascinating, don’t you think?

    One other point: whilst ‘Bite Your Tongue’ is about Queensland in the 60s, it’s just as relevant now, because those supremely conservative times are on the way back, particularly in Australia, wouldn’t you say?

    • Thanks, Nigel. Brave is a good word. I didn’t intend what I said at the beginning to mean, as I’m sure you realise, that the book would only resonate with people sharing that time and place, as I do see it as a very universal story. And funny you should mention conservatism because I have made that point, slightly differently, in tomorow’s Mondays Musings which I wrote last night.

      Choices are fascinating … Particularly when you see people from the same family, same or similar upbringings, making different choices. This book is rich for a 3000 word post, not a 1000 word one but I didn’t want to push the generosity of my readers too much! So many blogs to read!

  6. An interesting review. I too, reviewed Bite Your Tongue: a short review for the Courier Mail. I asked to review it because I had met Francesca at a Mothers on the Margins conference in Brisbane, and she gave a paper based on the novel/memoir.

    I didn’t feel it was a complete success. I thought the divided narrator was a clever device, but I resisted the ‘fictional’ voice of Gloria, which I found, at times, too lyrically intense and introspective, and I wanted some distance, some irony, which I found in the autobiographical voice of Francesca. But there were some marvellous scenes, like the bullying one you describe, and the book burning episode, and finally, Doctor Joy’s Death List. The last sentence of my review was: ‘This is a book you may fall in love with, if you remember what it was like to have a moral mother and to be an outsider at school, or if you just value good writing and the uncensored expression of desire and difference.’

    I fall into both those categories, and though I didn’t fall in love with the book, I found it memorable.

    I have two blog sites, one called Memory and You, which is (broadly) dedicated to life writing.

    • Thanks Christina for commenting here. This is such an interesting book … I can understand what you are saying, but I liked the mix of the distance and the intensity. I certainly enjoyed the Francesca sections. The intensity of the Gloria story reminded me very much of Kate Jennings’ Snake — also intense, a very different but also lyrical style. I like your conclusion – a very fair one.

      • Thanks! I’ve just found out about the 2012 Australian women writers reviewing challenge, and tried to sign up for it, but can’t figure out how to put my url in. Can you help?

        • Answering me! I just tried again, and this time ignored the strange symbols that came up in the window, and put my blog address in, and it worked!

      • I spoke too soon. The link I put in doesn’t work. My blog is a wordpress one. What prefixes does it need to create a viable link? You can tell I’m a dummy at this/1

  7. I entirely agree with your post. In fact my review, just posted, echoes some what you had said, but without the specific Austrailian references. Thanks. Great minds and all that.

  8. Memoir is one of my favorite genres and this sounds amazing.
    I’m glad you visited the other day and now I see which was you best of the year.
    Have you read Winterson’s memmoir “Why be happy when you can be normal?” I’m half way through… I have to put it aside often. It really hits home. I’ve added your blog to my reader. Should have done that a long time ago.

    • I’m glad I visited too … and welcome to my corner of the world, Caroline. No I haven’t read Winterson’s memoir though have heard discussions of it and have read and reviewed here her Oranges are not the only fruit. I’d like to read it in the light of that autobiographical novel. I like memoir (and autobiographical novels) too.

  9. Pingback: Imago, by Francesca Rendle-Short | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  10. Pingback: Bite Your Tongue reviews – francesca rendle-short

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