Kate Grenville, One life: My mother’s story (Review)

Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s best known contemporary writers, and is one of that small band to have succeeded both critically and commercially. Most know her for The secret river, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize among other awards. I enjoyed that, and the other novels of hers that I’ve read, with my favourite being The idea of perfection which won the, then, Orange Prize. I also loved her non-fiction work, Searching for The secret river, about researching for and writing The secret river. I was, consequently, keen to read her latest book, One life: My mother’s story, when I heard it was to be published this year.

Kate Grenville, One lifeGrenville’s mother, Nance, was born in 1912, and died in 2002. Sorting through her mother’s papers later, Grenville discovered multiple notebooks containing her mother’s attempts to write her story. Nance apparently tried different ways of writing it – including, Grenville quotes, trying “to write it backwards”. However, her attempts always petered out, never going past her early forties “perhaps because by then she felt less need to look back and try to understand”. And so, Grenville’s book sticks to that, stopping (except for a short postscript) when Nance was 38 and pregnant with Kate. Wah! How disappointing not to be able to read about Kate’s childhood!

When I first heard of the book, I thought of Meg Stewart’s fascinating Autobiography of my mother, which I read a few decades ago. Stewart is the daughter of artist Margaret Coen and author Douglas Stewart (who, coincidentally, was born in 1913, one year after Nance). They are, however, very different books, not only because these two women led very different lives – one an artist married to a writer, and the other a pharmacist married to a lawyer – but because Stewart wrote her book in first person, as if she were indeed writing her mother’s autobiography, while Grenville opted for the more expected third person approach of a biography.

Given Grenville’s mother was not an artist or famous in any way, and given, as I’ve already said, she doesn’t write about her writer-daughter’s childhood, why is this book worth reading? Grenville, in her prologue, admits that her mother “wasn’t the sort of person biographies are written about” but argues that her story is worth telling because “not many voices like hers are heard. People of her social class – she was the daughter of a rural working class couple who became pub-keepers – hardly ever left any record of what they felt and thought and did.” The result, as Grenville – ever with an eye on history – says, is that “our picture of the past is skewed towards the top lot”. Grenville argues convincingly that the stories of people like her mother are well worth hearing, though I do think the argument has largely already been won. Many contemporary historians (and others, like museum curators) are, as we’ve seen in the books now being published and exhibitions being created, demonstrably interested in the lives of “ordinary people”.

The paradox, though, is that Grenville’s mother’s story is not at all an “ordinary” one. She was born to rather mis-matched parents, Dolly and Bert, whose marriage had been orchestrated, in 1910, by Dolly’s mother. Nance and her two brothers were “dragged” around the state as their parents worked on farms, in pubs, in the city, in country towns. Nance was sent away to a convent school, where she was very unhappy, wanting always to be part of a family. They experienced the Depression, and her parents lost their pub in Tamworth as a result. At the end of her teens, Nance wondered:

what would have happened if her parents had been unadventurous and contented with their lot. She’d have grown up in Gunnedah, left school at fourteen as they had, married a farmer and had six children … Yes, she wanted to meet someone, get married, have children. She wanted to be happy. But she knew now that she wanted something else as well.

What that “now” refers to is completing her first year of pharmacy studies in 1930. It is this, I think, that proves Nance, while never famous, to be no “ordinary” woman – but one who was “part of the world of the future, not the faded past”. So she becomes a pharmacist, and, after a few romantic adventures, some of which also prove her to be not quite “ordinary”, she meets Troskey-ite lawyer Ken Grenville Gee, the man she married and with whom she had three children.

It was not an easy marriage. Nance fell in love with Ken, but she gradually realised that he didn’t love her. He was a fair but remote man. He acknowledged women and respected Nance’s intelligence. He was happy for her to return to work – particularly when they needed the money! – though he, for all his forward thinking in some areas, never gave a thought to the necessary childcare arrangements or to the housework that still needed to be done. It might be a devoted daughter’s bias, but Grenville presents her mother as a loving woman, with a strong mind and a wonderful can-do attitude.

Running through the story of a woman is also the story of a time and place, of Australia in the first half of the twentieth century. Nance, from a working class background, comes to agree with middle-class-but-socialist Ken that ordinary people never have a chance. She realises that

what people called destiny was really the system everyone was part of. The ones on the top of the pile kept everyone thinking they could get ahead, when in fact ordinary people never had a chance.

War and the Depression taught her that. Nance also faces the challenges of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Not only was there the expectation that she would manage the domestic realm while working outside the home, but she was treated with unfairness and disdain when she applied for her pharmacist licence, despite having the required qualifications and paperwork.

I loved all this, but I did find it an odd book to read, and I think this is due to the voice, to the fact that while it’s not an autobiography it is far more intimate than the usual biography. Kate’s knowledge – or understanding – of her mother’s motivations and behaviour is so intense that I found the third person voice disconcerting at times, all the while enjoying the insights. Grenville’s prose is simple, straightforward, but not plain. Imagery is used with restraint, with the focus primarily on the story and Nance’s thoughts and feelings. Here’s an example, a description of Nance, always wanting family, returning home between her first and second year of pharmacy study:

Nance leaned on the windowsill of her old room, looking up at the washed-out green of the hill behind town. There was nothing for her here. Only that failing hotel, the cranky mother, the father muddled up with some other woman. If this had ever been any kind of home for her, it wasn’t one any longer.

One life is a fascinating, engaging book. Grenville’s insights into her parents’ marriage, and particularly her mother’s thinking, reflect the empathy you’d expect from a novelist. How much comes from Nance’s own words, and how much is extrapolation, is not clear, but the book is convincing – on both the psychological level and as a social history. It is well worth reading for both those reasons.

awwchallenge2015Kate Grenville
One life: My mother’s story
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922182050

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

35 thoughts on “Kate Grenville, One life: My mother’s story (Review)

  1. I have to confess to a little disappointment about this book. I haven’t read it yet, but I remember going to a festival of ideas (or some such gathering) and Kate talking with great passion about the need for Australian novelists to use their power to change public attitudes towards climate change which was, at the time, under siege politically. She made a very convincing and I hoped, inspiring, case for authors to use fiction to get people thinking about this important issue, (as authors such as Jane Rawson, Alice Robinson and James Bradley have subsequently done).
    So I was expectingGrenville’s next book to do just that – but what we got was a bio that – as you have noted – seems at first glance to need a raison d’être. I’ll get round to reading it one day, but, well, I keep finding that other books push it further down the TBR pile…

    • That’s interesting Lisa … I had noticed that you hadn’t reviewed it, but was sure you would have it. I wonder if she will write on the topic? Maybe she’d like to but hasn’t got the inspiration for a story? Or maybe she has one under way? Time will tell, eh? I love, though, the faith in literature having the power to change attitudes.

      I did enjoy this book … and it was next in my review copy chronology!

      • Well, I can’t pretend to know how a writer’s mind works, it’s a kind of magic to me, a mysterious alchemy that results in wonderful books for me to read. But I think I can guess that there might be a gulf between wanting to write about something that’s important and actually being able to make the words work on the page. I’ve heard a number of authors talk about writing various books that just didn’t work…

        • Yes, that’s what I was thinking … it’s one thing to WANT to write something but could be very well a different thing to actually do it. As you say, a lot of authors have half finished books that haven’t worked – and some go back years later and change to voice or the perspective or something and voilà it starts to fall into place.

    • Ah Roweeee, if you like your books to come across as non-fiction The secret river might be for you since Grenville started it as non-fiction. Though, it really does read like a novel … so, hmmm. But, you’ll need to read it now to tell how you think it comes across 🙂

      • Thanks for the tip. I’ve been sick for the last few weeks and caught up on my reading just when I thought I was never going to get another book started or finished. You are spurring me on to get stuck into that book. Thanks! xx Rowena

  2. I must read this; my mother’s life was roughly contemporary with Grenville’s mother’s but she led a more traditional for the time life. Read in tandem with ‘One Life’ a book of her life’s story would be an interesting contrast: school, staying at home with Mother, marriage, children. Knowing how hard she worked running our home and family I am astounded at how Nance coped with a career with apparently a less than considerate husband and no mod cons such as today’s career mothers have. I think Grenville has produced a document that is valuable for future social historians. Perhaps a climate change book is still being researched and the emotional pressure of her mother’s recent death forced it there?

    • You may borrow it Lithe Lianas! It is astonishing what Nance achieved. There is talk at one stage of new mod cons … Like the refrigerator, but she felt sad about the loss of work for the iceman.

  3. ‘The Idea of Perfection’ is one of my all time favourite novels – to the extent that I’m now wary of reading Grenville as nothing she’s written before or since has had quite the same impact on me. My next favourite is probably ‘Searching for the Secret River’, so I know she’s great a non-fiction too. I’m really on the shelf about reading ‘One Life’ – I’m questioning if I’d love it, or if my time would be better spent re-reading Perfection…

    • Oh I can’t answer that Shoshi. It’s rather different to the others, but if you have it, you should give it a go.

      You have picked my favourites, though have you read Lilian’s story? I also remember really liking Dreamhouse but that was over 25 years ago. I want to re-read Perfection one day.

      • I read Lilian’s story, but too soon after ‘Perfection’ and remember getting a bit lost with it. ow that is a book I do need to re-read!
        I’m afraid I haven’t even heard of ‘Dreamhouse’, but will look out for it. Sadly most bookshops in the UK will only stock a maximum of one Grenville book (usually ‘Secret River’).

        • Haha Shoshi, I understand. Indeed it would be hard to find those earlier books in book shops her too. Dreamhouse was adapted to a film called Traps … But changed from Europe to Asia.

  4. Yes, I find it very odd that she chose not to write in the first person, Sue … But then, I can ONLY write that way; so my opinion isn’t worth a lot.

  5. One Life is a fantastic story, Kate Grenville’s powers as an author are at full force here. One of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s immensely readable, and extremely individual in its account of such an unusual life for a woman.
    I’m on a binge of memoirs lately, all excellent:
    Anne Summers – The Lost Mother
    Ramona Koval – Bloodhound
    Kristina Olsson – Boy, Lost.
    Any other suggestions welcome.

    • Yes, you’re right Anne. It is readable, and it is individual. Watch out for my next post – it’s another memoir. Looks like I’m on a binge too. I don’t think I’ve heard of Bloodhound but would be interested in Ramona Koval’s life so will look out for it. I haven’t read Summers or Olssen though they are on my list.

  6. I really enjoyed One Life, Nance was a woman to be admired. Kate Grenville has an engaging writing style and is easy to read. I have loved all of Kate Grenville’s novels except The Lieutenant. And I agree, The Idea of Perfection is her best.

    • Interesting, Meg, that so many of us like The idea of perfection. No wonder it won the Orange Prize. It clearly reaches a lot of us doesn’t it. I must say that I enjoyed The lieutenant. I found the story of Dawes really interesting. I’ve heard some say they don’t like Sara Thornhill, but I haven’t read it.

  7. Thanks Shoshi for your comment. The Idea of Perfection was my favourite by Kate, too – and this novel hardly ever comes up in all the brouhaha about The Secret River, Lilian’s Story etc. I must confess that I liked One Life because of the amazing writing skills Kate always brings to the fore, but thought it was curious that critics described it as ‘social history’, because as your post points out, Sue, Kate’s mother (and even her father) were not at all the norm for those days. My all-time favourite memoir would have to be Kris Olsson’s Boy, Lost, Anne. When I introduced her at an in-conversation event at the 2014 Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival I said if I had to live on an uninhabited island and could bring one book only, this would be it, and I still believe that. The way she structured that book and the beauty of her writing alone would be worth it

    • Wow, Annette, that’s interesting re Boy, Lost. I really must read it.

      I guess I’d say that although, as you and I agree, Kate’s parents weren’t the norm, I’m still happy to see One life partly as social history, because Grenville sets them against the norm, if that makes sense, and because even the individuals are part of social history. I see them as the ones the lead social change. It’s the women who did get professional education ahead of the pack, who did try to work, who showed both that it could be done, and what needed to happen to make it easier.

  8. How so very interesting! More than the story itself, I find Grenville’s artistic choices fascinating; to tell it in third person and to stop where here mother stopped. I imagine it keeps the story focused on her mother by not including Grenville’s childhood, but I wonder what all the reasons are?

  9. Pingback: 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlists | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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