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.
Grenville’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.
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)