Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2015

awwchallenge2015For the fourth year now, I’m devoting the year’s last Monday Musings to the Australian Women Writers Challenge*.

The challenge continues to be supported by a wide range of reviewers. This year we moved to a self-hosted site which enabled us to produce a single searchable database of all reviews logged since the challenge started in 2012. We now have reviews for nearly 3,000 books across all forms and genres of Australian women’s writing. An impressive resource, I’d say, for its breadth and accessibility.

As usual, the Challenge ran some special events during the year, including a focus on Lesbian/Queer women writers,  author Q&As, and an In Conversation With series. These were organised by some wonderful challenge volunteers, particularly Jessica White, Marisa Wikramanayake and Annabel Smith. I think these posts deserve more air, so will share them here:

The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is the only challenge I do (or have ever done). This year I posted 27 reviews for the challenge, three fewer than last year. I managed a similar variety in my reading, but unlike last year, I didn’t manage to read one book from my TBR pile. It was, I must say, an erratic year for me and I feel that I lurched from book to book, scrabbling to keep up. If I set myself one goal for next year it would be to tackle the TBR pile a little! On the plus side, three Australian women feature in my top ten posts for the year – Hannah Kent, Barbara Baynton, and Tara June Winch. What a diverse group that is!

Anyhow, here’s my list of works read for this year (with links to the reviews):




There are some subtle differences from last year’s list to this. For example, last year nearly all the non-fiction reads were memoirs, whereas this year only two are. I read a similar number of novels as last year, but twice the number of historical fiction novels, 4 versus last year’s 2. I will talk more about that in another end of year post. I would like to have read more classics/older books.

Anyhow, if you are interested in the challenge, you can check it out here. I don’t believe the sign up form is ready for 2016, but watch the site. You are most welcome – whether you are female or male – to join us. The challenge is also on Facebook, Twitter (@auswomenwriters), GoodReads and Google+.

Finally, a big thanks to Elizabeth and the rest of the team – including Lewis, our wonderful database developer – for making it all such a cooperative, and enjoyable experience. Roll on 2016.

* This challenge was instigated by Elizabeth Lhuede in 2012 in response to concerns in Australian literary circles about the lack of recognition for women writers. I am one of the challenge’s volunteers – with responsibility for the Literary and Classics area.

Eleanor Limprecht, Long Bay (Review)

LimprechtLongBaySleepersOne of the things that interests me about historical fiction, of which Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay is an example, is why the author in question chooses to write his/her story as fiction rather than non-fiction. As I’ve written before, this is an issue with which Kate Grenville grappled when she wrote The secret river. That book was initially going to be non-fiction about her ancestor Solomon Wiseman. However, for various reasons which she outlines in Searching for The secret river, the book ended up as fiction. Her reasons included gaps in the historical record, and finding the story – and particularly the voice – within the facts she had. I wondered, as I read Limprecht’s Long Bay, what her reasons were.

Long Bay, which draws its name from Sydney’s Long Bay Gaol, tells the story of Rebecca Sinclair, a young woman who in 1909, at the age of 23, was gaoled for manslaughter after a botched abortion. Limprecht describes on her website how she came to write the story: she was hunting for first person stories from the gaol when she came across two letters about Sinclair from the Prison Comptroller. Both those letters are reproduced in the book. Limprecht writes that she became obsessed with Rebecca Sinclair’s life, and started seeking out her story:

I found out everything I could and then began looking for living relatives in the hope they could tell me more. I joined an online genealogy site and made contact with a woman who had Rebecca on her family tree … she was Rebecca’s granddaughter.

Not only, it turned out, was she Rebecca’s grand-daughter, but the daughter of the baby Rebecca had had in goal. That baby, Freda, never did tell her daughter where she was born and why. Grand-daughter Christine

said that she wanted to honour her mother, who never felt she could share the story of her birth with anyone. She gave me permission to use her grandmother’s name and story for the novel, Long Bay.

Limprecht doesn’t specifically discuss why she chose to tell this story as fiction. Most likely it’s because she’s a fiction writer. Duh! (She does say on her site that Rebecca’s “story told me to look deeper, to understand bad choices, and to see beyond the razor wire, to the messy, real truth that fiction can reveal”.) But it may also be because, while there are several official records relating to Rebecca, there are major gaps in the record of her life. The lives of poor people, Limprecht implies, are not well documented. At the back of the novel, Limprecht notes the specific sources she quotes in the novel, but she does not, as some historical fiction authors do, discuss the historical basis of her story in any other detail – such as how much she has assumed, and how much she is confident of as “fact”. I’m interested in this, though it’s certainly not critical to analysis of the book as a piece of fiction.

So let’s get to the fiction! Limprecht tells the story straightforwardly. She starts with the letter – the one which inspired her story – from the Prison Comptroller to the Royal Hospital for Women advising of the arrangements for admitting Rebecca Sinclair. This is followed by a Prologue describing Rebecca’s admission and taking us to the beginning of labour. The novel then flashes back to her childhood (Chapter 1) and her story is told chronologically from this point.

Limprecht carefully sets up Rebecca’s character as a hard-working young woman who has a pretty good head and can be resourceful, but who in youthful naiveté let herself be taken in by Donald Sinclair, the only son of Nurse Sinclair, an abortionist, and a man who is, let us say, “an operator”. While there does seem to be love between them, Rebecca also slowly becomes aware that he is not to be trusted. Limprecht sets up a motive, to do with her sexuality, for Rebecca’s early willingness to accept Sinclair’s attentions. To modern minds, it could seem a little unrealistic but for the time it’s probably valid enough.

Rebecca is presented as responsible, and having integrity. As she imagines her trial, she realises that her

family will sit in that courtroom and watch her be led up into the cage. They will listen to all of the horrible things she has done. She did them with Don, for Don, but he did not force her hand.

I liked that self-awareness – though it’s true that her options if she did not go along with the plan, like those of poor women of her time, were few. I was intrigued to read in a contemporary newspaper report in Trove that she “caused a painful scene when she was sentenced. She sobbed and clung to her husband, the other prisoner, and appealed piteously to the court not to separate her from him.” Without giving too much away, this is not quite the Rebecca depicted by Limprecht, but perhaps her court-side Rebecca is drawn from what she knows was the trajectory of Rebecca’s life after her release.

Overall, while I enjoyed reading Rebecca’s story, she didn’t fully come alive for me – and I think back to Grenville’s challenge with her novel, that of finding the story, the voice, within the facts she had. I wonder whether having the permission of the family to tell this story hampered Limprecht in some way. Did she feel a little constrained to be sympathetic to Rebecca? Grenville decided to break free of her “real” subject and invent a character based on him. Not all historical fiction writers do this of course – Hilary Mantel didn’t for Wolf Hall (my review) and neither did Hannah Kent for Burial rites (my review) – but in this case, it may have freed Limprecht to fly a little more with the character, to have been, perhaps, a little less laboured about justifying her actions and decisions.

Nonetheless, the novel does make excellent reading. The plotting is confident and coherent, with the ground carefully laid for the “crisis” point. There’s some lovely imagery. Here, for example, is Rebecca feeling shame:

Like a hem on a dress that is too long, it drags behind her, gathering dirt, there for everyone to see.

And Limprecht’s description of turn of the century Sydney, and of the lives of poor women in particular, feels authentic. Rebecca’s mother, with six children, falls on hard times when her husband dies. She makes her money as a seamstress, which is a skill Rebecca learns. Her other daughters find different paths in life – one respectable, another not so. Limprecht is careful not to moralise on the abortion issue, preferring to show, rather than exhort. Nurse Sinclair is clear and unsentimental about why she does what she does – women need the service and they need it done safely, and she needs an income (“a trade that turns a pretty profit”). Rebecca sees the sorts of women coming through – servant women abused by their master, poor women with too many children, unmarried women. A prison guard shows rare kindness because she understands the issues.

Rebecca Sinclair’s story is a fascinating one. Notwithstanding my little equivocation, Limprecht has done it justice and brought to our modern times the story of a woman whose story is worth telling. A perfect one for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

awwchallenge2015Eleanor Limprecht
Long Bay
Collingwood: Sleepers, 2015
ISBN: 9780987507044

(Review copy supplied by Sleepers Publishing)

Carmel Bird, Fair game: A Tasmanian memoir (Review)

Courtesy: Finlay Lloyd

Courtesy: Finlay Lloyd

As I started reading this next fl smalls offering, an essay this time, I was reminded of one of my favourite Australian writers, Elizabeth von Arnim. Von Arnim was a novelist, but she also wrote several pieces of non-fiction, including her delightful non-autobiography, All the dogs of my life. The similarity stems from the fact that both writers play games with the reader regarding their intentions or subject matter – “This not being autobiography, I needn’t go much into what happened next”, writes von Arnim at various points – but this similarity fades pretty quickly because Bird’s piece, despite its similarly light, disarmingly conversational tone, has a dark underbelly.

I thought, given its subtitle, that Fair game was going to be a memoir of Bird’s growing up in Tasmania. But I had jumped too quickly to conclusions. The subtitle “a Tasmanian memoir” means exactly what it says, that is, it’s a memoir of Tasmania. Her interest is Tasmania’s dark history – “the lives of convict slaves, and the genocide of the indigenous peoples”. The title Fair game, you are probably beginning to realise, has a deeply ironic meaning.

However, getting back to my introduction, Bird does start by leading us on a merry little dance. Her essay commences slyly with a discussion of epigraphs – hers being taken from one of her own books – and the cover illustration. She doesn’t, though, identify the illustration at this point, but simply describes it as “an image of a flock of Georgian women dressed as butterflies, sailing in a glittering cloud high above the ocean”. She then takes us on all sorts of little digressions – about birds, and gardens, and collectors, about her childhood and such – but she constantly pulls up short, returning us to “the story”, or “rural Tasmania”, suggesting that the digressions are “not relevant to this story”. Except they are of course, albeit sometimes tangential, or just subtle, rather than head on. Indeed, she even admits at one stage that:

I have wandered, roving perhaps with the wind, off course from my contemplation of the butterfly women of 1832, they roving also with the wind. It must be clear by now that frequently in this narrative I will waver, will veer off course, but I know also that I do this in the service of the narrative itself. Just a warning.

I love reading this sort of writing – it’s a challenge, a puzzle. Can I follow the author’s mind? One of the easier digressions to follow – and hence a good example to share – is her discussion of a 1943 book published by the Tasmanian government, Insect pests and their control. Need I say more? Bird does, though – quite a bit in fact – and it makes for good reading.

Anyhow, back to the image. A few pages into her essay she tells us more. It’s an 1832 lithograph by Alfred Ducôte, and it is rather strangely titled “E-migration, or a flight of fair game”. On the surface it looks like a pretty picture of women, anthropomorphised as butterflies, flying through the air with colourful wings, pretty dresses and coronets. However, if you look closely, you will see that what they are flying from are women with brooms crying “Varmint”, and what they are flying to are men, one with a butterfly net, calling out “I spies mine”.  Hmm … I did say this was a dark tale, didn’t I? The illustration’s subject, as Bird gradually tells us, is that in 1832, 200 young women were sent from England to Van Diemen’s Land on the Princess Royal. They were the first large group of non-convict women to make the journey, and their role was to become wives and servants in a society where men significantly outnumbered women. As Bird says partway thought the book, “it is not a joyful picture; it is a depiction of a chapter in a tragedy”.

I’d love to know more about Ducôte, and why he produced this work, but this is not Bird’s story. Her focus is the history of Tasmania, and these particular women – who are they, what were they were going to? It appears that Bird has been interested in this story for a long time, since at least 1996 when Lucy Halligan, daughter of Canberra writer Marion Halligan, sent her a postcard with the image. Since then Bird has researched and written about the story. In fact, as she tells us, her research led to the creation of a ballet by TasDance in 2006. They called it Fair Game.

Finally, she gets to the nuts and bolts, and the so-called digressions reduce as she ramps up the story of how these women were chosen, their treatment on the ship, and what happened on their arrival. It is not a pretty story, but represents an important chapter in Australia’s settlement history. I commend it to you – for the story and for the clever, cheeky writing.

awwchallenge2015Carmel Bird
Fair game: A Tasmanian memoir
(fl smalls 7)
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2015
ISBN: 9780987592965

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Caroline de Costa, Double madness (Review)

De Costa, Double madnessI’m not a crime reader as most of you know, and in fact most of the crime novels I’ve read here have been review copies sent to me. Caroline de Costa’s Double madness is one of these. I accepted it for a couple of reasons. It’s a debut novel by a doctor, indeed a professor of Medicine at the James Cook University in Cairns, who has been shortlisted for a nonfiction work in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. And it is set in beautiful far north Queensland, my home state.

Not being an expert in crime writing, I can’t really compare it with other novels, but I’d say it’s in the sub-genre known as police procedural. According to Wikipedia, in police procedurals the detective is a police officer and the story depicts the activities of the police investigating the crime. Tick. However, Wikipedia also says that in police procedurals the perpetrator is often known to the reader, but this is not the case here, and that the novel will often deal with a number of unrelated crimes, which is also not the case here, though several references are made to one other crime. None of this matters, really thought, does it? Categories can be helpful in analysis, but in the end what counts is the work itself. I was just intrigued.

Double madness opens with the victim’s body being found, by accident, in a secluded part of the north Queensland rainforest, by a doctor and his wife who are driving home the scenic way. Finding the body is, I presume, a pretty traditional opening for a crime novel of this sort. The dating, like the setting, is also precise – 27 February 2011, which is three weeks after the category-5 Cyclone Yasi hit northern Queensland, causing significant destruction. The novel is told in almost straight chronology, with each chapter titled by a date, the last being 17 March 2011. Early in the novel, though, there are a few flashback chapters – mostly to 2009 – which flesh out a few characters for us.

Our main detective is the 30-something now-single mother, Cass Diamond. She’s of indigenous Australian background. Ah, so we have a non-indigenous writer, as far as I know anyhow, writing an indigenous character. You may remember discussions we’ve had here on this topic. I’ve quoted writer Margaret Merrilees, “To write about Australia, particularly rural Australia, without mentioning the Aboriginal presence (current or historical) is to distort reality, to perpetuate the terra nullius lie”. De Costa is writing about Far North Queensland, a place with a significant indigenous population, where it would indeed be poor form to ignore indigenous characters. My assessment is that de Costa has done it well. Cass makes some references to her indigeneity, and to some of the challenges she faces, but this is not her defining characteristic in the novel. She is “just” another police officer, and is defined as much, if not more, by being a single mother whose “fridge was a temple consecrated to convenience foods”. In other words, she’s in that band of job-jolly detectives who struggle to keep their personal life going, though Cass does a better job than most (that I’ve seen on TV anyhow). She does, for a start, seem to have a good relationship with her teenage son. Moreover, she’s not drunk, middle-aged or unduly cynical – yet, anyhow!

Back now, to the plot. Tucked into the copy sent to me was a slip of paper containing a short interview with the writer by reviewer Fiona Hardy. De Costa tells Hardy that she had “for some time been interested in the concept of folie-à-deux [share psychosis]”. Folie-à-deux translates as double madness – hence the book’s title. De Costa also tells Hardy, when describing the sort of detective she has created, that she has to write what she knows. And she knows medicine. Consequently, not only does the investigation and resolution of the crime involve some medical knowledge, but the story is set largely amongst the community’s medical fraternity. In other words, the good doctors of Cairns have been getting up to a bit of mischief with our victim, so when the murder is committed they find themselves in the frame. They are not, however, the only ones. There be a husband, and sons, and sundry other possibilities. All I’ll say is this is a tricky plot with a goodly dose of red herrings. For more, you’ll have to read the book.

I wouldn’t call Double madness a ground-breaking or particularly innovative detective novel, but it’s an enjoyable read. The writing is clear and straightforward, keeping to the point and moving along at a fair pace. There’s no unnecessary description, but where it is needed, such as to describe the bush or, say, a doctor’s experience of working through a cyclone, it feels real and authentic. Hardy, in her interview, notes that the cyclone Yasi makes an effective metaphor for the havoc wrought by the victim, Odile Janvier, on those around her. She’s right, it does.

When I read fiction, as I’ve said before, I look for some underlying messages or themes or issues being explored because I like my reading to further my understanding of humanity. Double madness is not, in this sense, a deep or enquiring book, but it is quietly subversive in the way it handles race and gender. Its indigenous characters are not defined by their indigeneity, and women detectives and medicos play important, but accepted and unremarked, roles in the investigation and resolution of the crime. Moreover, while the murder victim is a woman, she is far from the norm of murdered women victimhood. Good on de Costa.

So, if you are looking for a new crime author for your crime fan friends this Christmas – because yes, it’s that time of year again – then Double madness is well worth putting on your list.

awwchallenge2015Caroline de Costa
Double madness
Witchcliffe: Margaret River Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780987561565

(Review copy courtesy Margaret River Press)

Emily Bitto, The strays (Review)

Emily BItto, The strays, book coverLet me start by saying I really enjoyed reading Emily Bitto’s The strays. It was scheduled for my reading group the day after my return from Tasmania, and I suddenly found myself in the last day of my Tasmanian holiday without having started the book. Wah! I read it in two days, helped by several hours in a couple of airports. I haven’t done that for a long time, and what a joy it was to have a real length of time to commit to a book. It helped, of course, that having both a strong plot and an intriguing set of characters, The strays is compelling to read. It reminded me, albeit loosely, of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead revisited and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

This is a debut novel, which also won this year’s Stella Prize. Set primarily in the 1930s, with the last of four parts set in the 1960s, The strays is both historical fiction and a coming-of-age novel. It is also a classic outsider story. Lily, who tells the story first person, is befriended when she is 8 years old by schoolmate Eva, the middle daughter of the Trenthams who, early in the novel invite a number of artist “strays” to form a utopian-bohemian artistic community. The Trenthams are inspired by the Reeds and their Heide group, but The strays is not a Heide story*.  This may be the strength of the novel, but also perhaps its weakness – a strength because it frees Bitto to tell her own story, but a weakness because it removes potential ideas on which to hang her story.

Before I get to that, though, a little more about the story. The first three parts follow the Trenthams for 8 years, from when Lily is 8 to 16. During this time Lily becomes increasingly involved with the Trenthams, in preference to her boring, conservative, middle-class parents, eventually living with them full-time. Some members in my reading group found her parents’ relinquishing of their daughter unbelievable, but this was during the Depression, and Lily’s parents did have some problems of their own to manage. I could suspend my disbelief. From Lily’s point of view, she was in thrall to the excitement of the Bohemian life, telling her parents, “I love you both but I want to be different”.

Her parents, however, should have been concerned, because the Trenthams are rather casual, neglectful parents and the four girls more or less run their own lives, sometimes being fed properly, sometimes not, sometimes, in the case of one in particular, going to school, and sometimes not. The story is as much about them, as about the artists, though we do hear about the artists too. There’s exploration of experimental art and its acceptance or otherwise by society, obscenity charges, mentee supplanting mentor, and so on. There are parties, and other occasions, where artists and children come together. Bitto, through Lily, paints all this beautifully. Indeed, I loved her ability to evoke scenes, people and places with effective, yet tight imagery.

Bitto’s use of Lily as her narrator works nicely. Through most of the novel, we see the story through her child’s point-of-view, but occasionally, with a “later I realised” type of comment, we are reminded that this is an adult telling the story of her childhood:

When was it that I became a voyeur in their midst? I was the perfect witness, an unsuspected anthropologist disguised within the body of a young girl, surrounded by other young girls who were part of the family. Yet I was cuckoo in the nest, an imposter who listened and observed, hoarding and collecting information.

This narrative style keeps the story grounded. We see the dysfunctional dynamics and its effects before Lily, wooed by the excitement, does – though she does have moments of clarity. When the youngest daughter goes missing on one occasion, she writes:

I drew in my breath. These adults were no use in a crisis.

The subtext is that her parents would be.

But, here’s the thing. The book tackles a lot of ideas. There’s the exploration of society’s reaction to experimental art; the idea of coming to terms with the past (for Lily); the utopian artist community and whether it can really work; indulgent or neglectful parenting, creating a dysfunctional family life that comes back to bite; the exploration of girlhood friendships and the whole coming-of-age thread; not to mention those big issues like loyalty and betrayal, envy, sexuality and sensuality. It’s not that these were uninteresting, or even that they weren’t well developed. It’s more that I struggled to find Bitto’s main focus, and I guess I like some sort of central idea on which to hang my understanding of a book.

My reading technique is that when I finish a book I go back and reread the beginning. This usually puts the whole into context, pinpointing what the author was about. However, this technique didn’t work wonderfully with The strays. Bitto’s Prologue starts by discussing the mystery of instant attraction between people, and then moves on to the idea of past life connections and that people’s souls can be twinned from one life to the next. These ideas are used to explain Lily’s relationship with Eva, but I’m not sure that this is fundamental to the book’s meaning. The prologue then discusses the past. Three decades after the main events, Lily receives a letter:

and I become aware of an old compulsive pain I have pressed like a bruise again and again throughout the years.


I feel a tenderness in my chest, and the past rushes in as a deluge I can no longer hold back …


I let my mind turn back once more, to recreate again that distant, still wracked past.

Is it this, the idea of coming to terms with or resolving the past, that binds the book together? It is partly. By the end of the novel, Lily has come uneasily to terms with what happened those three decades ago, and its impact on her life. I say uneasily because – and here we come to the epigraph, by William Pater, which expresses a different idea again to those in the prologue: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”. Lily’s uneasiness is that she has chosen “conventionality”, but recognises that part of her “is still drawn to the romance of the fully lived life”. Then we have the book’s concluding paragraphs, which are more concerned with mothering and family in Lily’s recognition that it was the Trentham children who paid the debt for their parents’ experiments. See my problem regarding central idea? Or, is it just that I’m being boringly 20th century?!

Whatever it is, they are just niggles. As a read, The strays is up there as one of my most enjoyable for the year – for its lucid writing, for the story and a setting that had such appeal, and, yes, even for that whole raft of ideas that she throws so determinedly at us. Even for that.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers enjoyed the book too.

* Interestingly, a couple of “real” people are mentioned, one being politician and later judge, Herbert Evatt – as a supporter of modern, experimental art.

awwchallenge2015Emily Bitto
The strays
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781922213211

Danielle Wood, Mothers Grimm (Review)

Danielle Wood, Mothers Grimm, book cover

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

If you thought from the title of Danielle Wood’s latest novel, Mothers Grimm, that it comprises a retelling of fairytales you’d be right – and wrong. Right, because the stories contained within do springboard from specific fairytales, but wrong if you expect the new stories to be retellings. The wordplay on the title – Mothers Grimm/Brothers Grimm/Grim Mothers – sets the tone. This is a clever, wicked, funny but also heartrending look at modern motherhood.

Now, if you’re not an expert in fairytales, you might be relieved to know that it’s not necessary to know the source story to understand Wood’s “version”. While knowing the source story may add a lovely (and clever) fillip to our understanding, Wood’s stories stand well on their own. The collection starts with a prologue, which also draws from a fairytale, Hans My Hedghog. Here, Wood puts on a pedestal and then takes apart the idea of “the good mother” showing it for the myth it is, that is, an idea primarily concocted by advertisers to show us the way to perfect family life. Wood writes this opening section in second person, gathering us effectively into her wisdom. She shows us the “truth” behind the myth but assumes that, deep down at least, we already know it: “You could tell them [the literary scholars and psychoanalysts, she means] exactly why it is, in fairy tales, the Good Mother is always dead”. I knew by the end of the Prologue that I was going to like this book.

The thing about the myth, of course, is that no matter how much we might see its falsity, we still get pulled in. Why? Because we want to be the best mothers we can, we want to do the best for our children, we want them to be better and happier than we were/are. It’s a big ask, as life has a way of showing – and if life hasn’t, Wood certainly does. So, how does she do it? After the prologue, there are four stories: Lettuce (“Rapunzel“), Cottage (“Hansel and Gretel“), Sleep (“Sleeping Beauty“), and Nag (“The Goose Girl“). In each, Wood takes the original concept and spins a tale that can be darkly funny at times, but that is always devastatingly honest. This is a book which must surely bring a rueful laugh to most parents, but is perhaps best kept away from potential or new ones – though, if I remember my own youth, I probably wouldn’t have believed it anyhow. Sometimes empathy really does spring best out of one’s own experience!

In “Lettuce”, a beautiful pregnant woman is envied by the other women in a pregnancy yoga class. She seems perfect and becomes the focus of their obsession and envy. The story is told, third person, through the eyes of one of the mothers, Meg. Now Meg grew up with an earnest, sheltering mother who somehow missed the point about joy and pleasure. So when young Meg is introduced by a school friend to the delights of eating only the cream out of cream biscuits (Orange Slices, to be exact), she is shocked. She

couldn’t have said what exactly it was that was so profoundly bad about eating only the cream out of the biscuit, but she knew it was worse than just the waste.

Through gorgeous descriptions of familiar actions – such as how you twist a biscuit to separate its two parts and thus expose the cream – and by conveying often inchoate feelings or longings, Wood manages to expose the quiet deceptions and jealousies, but also the fear, confusion and love, on which motherhood is often built.

If “Lettuce” focuses on imagining an impossibly ideal “good mother”, “Cottage”, explores the guilt mothers feel about leaving their children in childcare. Nina makes a deal with her husband: he will support her staying home until their son goes to school, and she will not ask for another child. Best-laid plans – but of course we all know what happens to them. In this story Wood explores that still-familiar territory – the vexed question of child-care and the distressing way women judge each other. Indeed, mothers judging each other is one of the darker, sadder themes of the book. In this story, Nina’s dreams and ideals of motherhood are brought down, partly by her own unrealistic expectations (and oh, how I recognised those), but partly too by the economic pressures of modern life.

In “Sleep”, Wood turns to a teenage Mum. While the previous two stories are told third person from the perspective of one mother, in “Sleep” the perspective, though still third person, is shared, mainly between two sisters, Liv and Lauren. This is a well-to-do family, shamed by a teen pregnancy. There are wicked twists and wordplay here on the main motifs of “Sleeping Beauty” – the prick, and sleep – but in the end the story is about new mothers who do it alone. It’s about how easy it is to lose self and perspective when you have no support and don’t get enough sleep. It’s the most shocking of the stories – particularly because Liv doesn’t get the support she needs from the one she most needs it from, her mother.

And then there’s “Nag”, about Stella, a young woman who, trained as a nurse, goes about as far away as she can from her loving, but long-suffering mother. The story starts in 1958, and unlike the previous three, is told first person by Stella, who is telling her story to her daughter. She describes how she married:

He was twenty-two years old and starting to look about for a wife and I came to him like a lost banknote on a windy street: a windfall that he quite reasonably thought he may as well put in his wallet as throw back on the ground.

Stella finds herself, lonely, on a dusty farm with a remote, unsupportive mother-in law, and a nagging (I won’t reveal the gorgeous wordplay on this one) voice that tells her “If your mother could see you now, it would break her heart in two”. The focus here is the often fraught mother-daughter relationship.

What Wood shows is that grandmothers, mothers, and daughters are all complicit in maintaining and perpetuating the myth of “the good mother”. There is the occasional subversive mother, or the one who seems to steer an easy course through the minefield, or the one who manages to rise above the competition to reach out to a sister-mother, but for most the gap between ideal and reality defeats them. The “F” word – Feminism I mean – is not explicitly discussed but it lurks underneath. Indeed, I suspect many of the characters would eschew the word, but their lives and expectations are shaped by it nonetheless – and not, it seems for the better.

The accommodations and compromises, together with the emotional and physical losses, are grinding. I’m making it all sound rather grim (excuse the pun), and there is that, but it’s not what I came away with. The humour, warmth and lack of judgement with which Wood delivers her truths suggest that her aim is not to be negative but to shine a light on the issues and encourage discussion. If there’s a lesson to learn, it’s that there are many ways of being good mothers … and they start with being easy on yourself.

awwchallenge2015Danielle Wood
Mothers Grimm
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2014
ISBN: 9781741756746

Paddy O’Reilly, Peripheral vision: Stories (Review)

Paddy O'Reilly, Peripheral vision Book coverThe title of Paddy O’Reilly’s latest collection of short stories, Peripheral vision, comes from the story “Restraints”, in which the narrator, standing in a robotics lab where things have gone awry, says:

… and I caught again a flicker in my peripheral vision.

It’s a good title for the book because the stories are about people or events that happen to the side of “ordinary” life, however we might frame that. (I don’t talk enough about titles in my reviews, but they are important.) O’Reilly’s characters vary greatly – in gender and age. Short story writers, I’ve noticed, pay little attention to the criticism novelists often face regarding the voice they write in, like, can a man write a woman, can an anglo-Australian write an indigenous or immigrant person, and so on. Short story writers frequently range far and wide in the voices they write in. As I was reading this collection, I found myself thinking about short story writers, and what writing short stories might mean to them. While some people see short stories as a training ground for the “real” thing, novels, the writers themselves, I suspect, see them as a form in which they can let their imaginations fly. They can try being anyone or anything, anywhere, and are less likely to be taken to task for it. Certainly, in Peripheral vision, O’Reilly’s characters range from a teenage schoolgirl to a homeless man, from a twenty-something brother to a ten-year-old step-daughter, from a Filipino man to a young Australian teacher in Japan.

There are 18 stories in this collection, of which 12 have been published before. I had in fact read two of them: “The salesman”, a powerful and confronting story that I reviewed here as an individual story, and “Serenity prayer”, which was published under the title “Reality TV” in Angela Meyer’s The great unknown (my review). Another story also underwent a title change, from “Friday nights” to “Territory”. Titles! Clearly important. Well, I presume these title changes are O’Reilly’s and that she thought the same story presented in a different collection would work better under a different title. “Reality TV”, for example, is a straightforward descriptive title, with a little hint of irony, for an anthology about inexplicable things. “Serenity prayer” is a more subtle title encouraging multiple readings, particularly if you consider the ways in which this prayer is, and has been, used. This story, about a publicly betrayed wife, gets you in, and then, at the end, makes you wonder.

Simplistically speaking, the stories can be divided into two types, plot-driven and character-driven. “Territory” is a fairly traditional plot-driven story about a group of six girls out on the town on a Friday night, but, there are clues that there’s something more going on. For one, there’s the way they dress:

That was the one thing you might question about us. Other girls who went out in a group looked more alike. Arty types with arty types; girls who knew how to pick up wearing the uniform of short hip-hugging skirt, skyscraper heels, mascara and lipstick … We were a mixed-up crowd …

Then there’s the reference to a seventh girl, Suze, and the suggestion that everything might be alright now she’s been accepted into medical studies. Gradually hint upon hint is dropped suggesting that these girls aren’t just out for a good time. A very effective story. “Serenity prayer”, mentioned above, is another with a strong plot line. “One good thing”, one of the longer but still nicely sustained stories, is about the friendship between two school girls, and a violent act that occurs during a holiday visit. Its resolution, as in most of the stories, is open, leaving us to consider the short and long-term ramifications of such acts. Each of these explores a core idea – but sharing that idea could spoil the plot, so I’ll leave it here.

I can though talk about the ideas underpinning the character-focused stories. “Caramels”, for example, is about a homeless man. The ideas underpinning it relate to pride and dignity. It has a story of course, describing his life, but in these character-focused stories, plot is not the driving force. “After the Goths” is about a young twenty-four-year-old man working through guilt about something that happened in his teens. It makes him behave meanly to his older brother but, in a nice touch, his brother doesn’t rise to the occasion. Not everything, O’Reilly knows, has to be high drama to be interesting.

Other stories are perhaps better described as slice-of-life. “Deja vu”, set in a small town in France known for its medicinal hot springs, is one. It’s about the relationships. There’s Anthony with unexplained concerns of his own, who meets an older couple and finds himself drawn into their company against his will, as can happen when you travel. And there’s the older couple, comprising a whining dissatisfied wife and a long-suffering husband. It’s, partly anyhow, about the accommodations you make. Martin “had never been able to speak rudely to anyone” and George, the husband, seems to do a good job of accommodating his wife. The language here is delicious. The whining wife’s “mouth held the shape of a drawstring purse”. A little later, “her lips grew tighter, as if someone had pulled the drawstring”.

There’s wry humour in some of the stories, like “Breaking up” and “The word”, and a couple of the stories, “Procession” and “Restraints”, tip, intriguingly, into the speculative genre. In all, though, O’Reilly presents humans facing challenging situations – some violent, some threatening or risky, and others confusing or unsettling. Whatever it is, she rarely fully resolves the tension, leaving it instead to the reader to think about the morality, the values, the accommodations at play. This can be disconcerting if you like closure. But I like it, not only because closure can be boring and, frankly, not realistic, but also because it means you can read the stories again and again, and come to a slightly different conclusion or, should I say, understanding, each time.

Peripheral vision is exciting to read. Each story is so different that I was driven on to the next one, wondering what I’d find there. What I invariably found was a new world with another challenge to my way of seeing. I wonder what her peripheral vision will pick up next.

awwchallenge2015Paddy O’Reilly
Peripheral vision
St Lucia: UQP, 2015
ISBN: 9780702253607

(Review copy supplied by UQP)

Karen Lamb, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (Review)

Karen Lamb, Thea Astley

Courtesy: UQP

One of the threads that runs through Karen Lamb’s biography, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather, is Astley’s ongoing frustration about her work not being appreciated or recognised. On the face of it, this seems neurotic or, perhaps, paranoid. After all, she was the first writer to win the Miles Franklin Award four times, a feat only equalled to date by Tim Winton, and  she won pretty well every other major Australian literary award including the Christina Stead Award for Fiction and The Age Book of the Year Award. Yet, as I have often mentioned on this blog, I would agree that she is under-appreciated. Indeed, winning the Patrick White Award when she was 64 and had published 11 of her 16 books somewhat supports her case. It is awarded to a writer who has been highly creative over a long period but has “not received due recognition”. Lamb quotes her as saying “Ya know what it’s for, it’s for people who fail”! Not quite, if you look at the list of winners, but …

“a writer’s writer”

Why is this? Well, part of it could be gender-based. Astley’s satire and, yes, ferocity were not the fare “expected” of a woman. And part could be because, as author Matthew Condon put it, she’s a “writer’s writer”. This means, I’d say, that she doesn’t pull any punches to prettify her feelings and attitudes, her language is complex and imagistic, her works don’t necessarily neatly fit traditional forms, and she doesn’t dumb down. (It helps to have a dictionary nearby when you read her). But, she is so worth the effort, because she can move you to laughter or tears or just plain anger and shock with her way of expressing the world she saw. You may have heard her four ages of women – “bimbo, breeder, baby-sitter, burden” (Coda) – but what about her description of time as “the great heel”?

“My novels are 90% ME”

Let’s now, though, get to the biography. Why do we read author biographies? Why not just read – and re-read – more of their works? Is it simply a voyeuristic activity or can biographies add something of value to our understanding? And if the latter, what sort of understanding? Is it valid to try to understand an author’s works though his or her life, or, vice versa, to understand the life through the works*? These can be minefields for literary biographers, but they’re minefields Lamb has stepped lightly across. Astley’s statement that “My novels are 90% ME” helped, yet the question is still valid.

How has Lamb done it? For a start, she doesn’t attempt any pop psychology. She presents the story of Astley’s life, noting points of interest, of stress and tension – such as her very strict Catholic upbringing – but she doesn’t labour the point. She lets the reader make most of the assumptions or connections. Similarly, she situates the works in Astley’s time-line, describing what was going on at the time and drawing out themes and concerns – such as those of the outcast and misfit – that recur in her novels. She tracks changes in Astley’s thinking, such as her complex attitude to gender and feminism, through both her life and her work. Astley’s early works from the 1950s and 60s, for example, were mostly written from a male or “neuter” perspective, but later in her career, as times changed, she shifted to a female point of view.

Lamb tells the story, like most biographies, in a generally chronological manner. The book is logically organised into four parts – youth, early career, middle career, and later career – with gorgeously evocative chapter titles most of which come from Thea’s own words. Chapter 2, for example, is “Suspected of reading” from Beachmasters, and Chapter 9’s “I merely crave an intelligent buddy” is from a letter. Underpinning this chronology are recurring themes, including her anxieties about critical recognition and her ongoing battle with publishers to get a fair deal for literary writing; her awareness of her “difficult” style; her persistent focus on and interest in outsiders and misfits, gender, and male-female relationships; her smoking; her long, complicated but loving marriage; and what Lamb describes as her “twin modes of existence”, that is, her adoption of an insider-outsider role or persona. As the book progresses, all these appear and reappear, creating a coherent picture of Astley as a complex, idiosyncratic, frequently funny and often irascible, but oh so very human person.

I was, naturally, interested to read about Astley’s life. I loved that Lamb confirmed the Astley I thought I knew, while filling in the gaps and the backstory that helped me understand her better. I was thrilled, for example, to discover that Astley loved Gerard Manley Hopkins. That made complete sense, considering her style, but how I wish my love of Hopkins had the same effect on me! Anyhow, I was also, of course, keen to read about the writing and the publishing, about the works and how they fitted into her life. Lamb met this intelligently, slotting the works into the chronology, and explaining salient points, as relevant, about what inspired them, who edited and published them, what the critical response was, how they relate to her oeuvre, and so on. I’ll be returning to these – via the thorough index – as and when I read and/or re-read her works.

“It can be lonely at the bottom”

So far I have written mostly, as I should, about the biography itself, but, before I finish, I do want to shine a light a little more specifically on Astley and her work. One of the recurrent issues in Lamb’s book is Astley’s ongoing concern, mentioned earlier, regarding her lack of, or mixed, critical reception. Lamb suggests that, partly to defend herself from critics but partly also because it was how she wrote, Astley described herself as “intensely interested in style”, the subtext being that style was more important to her than plot. In this, Lamb suggests, she was like Patrick White and Randolph Stow. She could be hard on herself, saying early in her career that

It’s a fearful thing to have de luxe standards and be limited by technique and self. I know the country I want to explore but I only seem able to chart its coasts.

Yet she didn’t take (negative) criticism well. This is interesting, given she often opened herself up to it. Perhaps it is partly because she didn’t feel understood. It’s difficult to accept criticism when the basis of that criticism misses the mark, as it often did. Astley, for example, experimented with style and form throughout, but not everyone appreciated that. However, it is also very likely that gender played a role. In 1981 she wrote:

Perhaps it is because I am a woman – and no reviewer, especially a male one, can believe for a split infinitive of a second that irony or a sense of comedy or the grotesque in a woman is activated by anything but the nutrients derived from ‘backyard malice’ … the Salem judgement comes into play and the lady writer is more certainly for burning.

The other point I want to make relates to her themes. Lamb argues that Astley consistently explored outsiders and misfits, and ideas about gender, and male-female relationships, particularly in relation to power and responsibility. Her subject matter may have changed from her early treatment of “teachers, small towns and islands”, and then of suburban life, to wider social concerns about justice, development and indigenous dispossession, but her “obsessions” persisted. I think, as does Lamb, that by the end she’d come full circle, but to a more sophisticated expression, from the lonely, isolated teacher in 1958’s A girl with a monkey to a despairing Janet writing for the last reader in 1999’s Drylands. Such an impressive, tightly focused but never boring oeuvre.

I could say the same about this biography. At just over 300 pages (excluding the end-matter), it manages to be both extensive and intensive. It is tightly focused but never feels like a mere recording of facts. It is honest and affectionate but not hagiographic. It portrays that paradox typical of creators, the self-protective writer who lays herself bare. And it demonstrates that Astley’s concerns are as relevant today as they were when she died in 2004. Lamb’s biography goes some way towards according Astley the recognition she wanted and deserved. May it be just the start.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) would agree.

awwchallenge2015Karen Lamb
Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather
St Lucia: UQP, 2015
ISBN: 9780702253560

(Review copy supplied by UQP)

* Carol Shields’ biography of Jane Austen is an interesting example, because it’s a case of a novelist writing about a novelist about whom little is known. Shields was upfront about using Austen’s work to fill in the gaps. It worked because she was honest about what she was doing.

Rochelle Siemienowicz, Fallen (Review)

SiemienowiczFallenAffirmBeing a reader who focuses more on “truths” than “facts”, I’m not averse to writers playing around with fact in their fiction or fiction in their fact. This issue raises its head most frequently in historical fiction of course, but it’s also present in autobiographies, memoirs and even biographies. And so, here I am, having just reviewed Kate Grenville’s biography-cum-memoir of her mother, talking about another memoir, Rochelle Siemienowicz’s Fallen.

“It is a story …”

Siemienowicz’s memoir commences with – well, a literary in-joke – “Call me Eve”. What? It’s a memoir the front cover tells us, and the author’s fist name is Rochelle. Who’s this Eve? Rochelle explains in her brief introductory note, a note that precedes the Prologue, that her parents would never have named her for “that original sinner” but that it’s the name she gives herself when she thinks back to that time when she was a young wife, “so very young, so very hungry”, when she “picked the fruit and ate and drank until I was drunk with freedom and covered in juice and guilt”. The name Eve then has a symbolic meaning that forces us, as we read the book, to consider the idea of “fallen women”, but it also enables Siemienowicz to distance her present self from that young woman she once was. This reminded me of Kate Holden’s memoir, The romantic (my review), in which she chose a different path to create that separation – the third person voice.

Anyhow, having explained the name issue, Siemienowicz continues with the point that interests me, the form of her memoir. She writes that “it is a story, with parts made up and fragments rearranged like a dream half remembered now that twenty years have passed”. In the Epilogue, she mentions, almost in passing, that she’d originally written the book as a novel.

So, in Fallen we have a memoir that has strong novelistic elements, including a tight cast of characters, a deliberate narrative structure, and dialogue. You don’t find dialogue in traditional autobiographies. We readers would not believe that the writer could remember verbatim conversations held so long ago. But, dialogue is increasingly being incorporated into memoirs. Dialogue can engage readers, and while it may not represent verbatim “fact” it can convey the “truth”.  If you are starting to question by now whether this really is a memoir, I should confirm that it is fact-based, at least I believe it is, unless Siemienowicz has pushed artifice so far that her apologetic-cum-warning phone-call to her ex-husband in the Epilogue is fake! But I don’t think this is the case. There does come a point where you must suspend your disbelief and go with the writer after all.

“I feel something breaking inside of me”

Now, having spent paragraphs on introductory discussion, it’s time to say something substantial about the book’s content. Fallen is the story of a young woman raised by devout Seventh-Day Adventists (SDA) who believe, among other things, that premarital sex is a sin. To satisfy her intense sexual longings and remain “clean in the Lord’s sight”, Eve, who feels a freak in a freakish religion, marries Isaac, another SDA, in 1992 when she’s only 20. She’s deliriously happy. They love each other, and they’re free. They rebel – drink alcohol, eat meat, spend hours in bed – but then, within a couple of years, Isaac starts to withdraw, losing interest in their sexual relationship. The solution – because they love each other, and are committed to their vows (to stay married, at least) – is to have an open marriage. There’s only one rule, they must always ask permission first.

Most of the book is set in Perth in 1996, when Eve returns home to attend a conference and catch up with old friends. Her lover, Jay, is to follow for a week, followed by her husband the week later. Before Jay arrives, she reconnects with her first love, and has a fling with another conference attendee. Oh what tangled webs! Things, in other words, start to unravel, and Eve’s faith in her marriage and her vows starts to break down under the weight of secrets. She begins to question whether their rules can work “in the real world” – but the alternative, and its implications, are confronting.

“Can the centre hold …”

Memoirs are interesting beasts. Why do we read them? Sometimes it’s obvious. The memoirist is famous, or is writing about something we love (like literature, for example, for me). Sometimes it’s less obvious. It might be that the memoirist has experienced something we are experiencing like, say, grief. With Fallen, however, neither of these reasons really apply for me. So why read this one? Well, for two main reasons. One is that while the circumstances – a young woman of a strict religious upbringing trying open marriage – are rather narrowly specific, there are some broad themes. One has to do with sexual freedom. What does it mean, before, within and without marriage? How does it affect relationships? What has it to do with sincerity, intimacy and honesty? How do principles fit with feelings? There’s a broader theme too – the formation of identity. The subtitle of the memoir, “marrying too young”, hints at this. How easy is it to sustain a marriage made before you have fully formed your identity?

I feel myself spread all over the nation, with loyalties and loves and lusts from the east coast to the west, and no idea what to do with them. I’m a girl with no qualities and no boundaries, with legs wide open and a beating heart exposed. I’m appalled by myself, but also intrigued. How many tiny pieces of myself can I give away before there is nothing left? How curiously exhilarating. It feels like vertigo.

The other reason for reading this memoir is the writing. Siemienowicz knows how to tell a story. She structures the memoir around a trip back home, which she tells chronologically, but into it she weaves the story of her life and relationships to that point. We see a young woman who can be confident and brazen one moment, and vulnerable and uncertain the next, who throws herself wholeheartedly into life but doesn’t always think about where she’s pointing. And we see all this through a focused narrative and clear, direct but spirited language.

Fallen is, at times, an uncomfortable read but Siemienowicz’s honesty, her angst about her “fraying code of honour” versus her desire to fully engage in her life, captured my imagination and had me wanting her to find an honourable conclusion to a painful part of her life. This memoir is testament, I’d say, that she does.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
Fallen: A memoir of sex, religion and marrying too young
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781922213655

(Review copy supplied by Affirm Press)

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)