Murray, Ruby J.. The Biographer’s Lover. Carlton: Black Inc., 2018. RRP $29.99. 288pp. ISBN: 9781863959421
Stories. Whether telling our own or telling other people’s, stories are at the heart of what makes us human. How would we know a life, if stories weren’t told about it? How would we know the world, if we didn’t hear stories about it?
The necessity for stories is something that is explored with bare honesty in Ruby J. Murray’s novel The Biographer’s Lover. The biographer is a self-confessed washed-up 20-something with no real aims in life other than ghost writing other people’s books—even in the act of creating stories she is still rendered invisible. The subject is an underappreciated artist, who the biographer discovers has had a much more thrilling life than her retentive family care to let on.
From the off, the idea of story is explored in relation to who will read them, or whether they will be read at all. This question then poses then another – is a story worth being told if no one will hear it?
“Look,” said Anna-Marie. “My advice is the same. Set a price, do it as a vanity project under the daughter’s name, or get the brother on board and do it under your name.” (25)
The biographer’s worth as a storyteller is defined by the commercial viability of the story she is telling; the implication is that some are not worth being associated with. Who is telling what becomes a defining theme throughout the book. Even the biographer’s own life is defined by other peoples’ narratives of her.
I only had a few friends left. Joe had taken most of them in the divorce. No-one had told me that dividing your property meant taking people too. His story—that I had cheated on him—was better than mine: that I had been unhappy, and aimless, and that my edges had dissolved in ink like water. (26)
The ink is a dual symbol; in the literal sense it is her signature on the divorce papers, in another, although it is the medium through which she should be defined as a writer, instead it ‘dissolves’ her, it makes her invisible and undefined.
As the novel goes on, the biographer begins to tell the story of Edna, the artist, but in this process she also begins to tell her own story, to redefine herself, ‘Over a decade later, hiding in Margaret Whitedale’s bathroom, aged twenty-nine, I told myself I was a grown-up …’ (43). She is ‘telling’ herself who and what she is. In this narrative, what is told and spoken becomes a story and those stories lay claim to an identity or person or incident. This theme continues as the biographer begins to experience the family’s relationship to Edna’s star-football-player son, Percy, ‘Every aunt and uncle talked about Percy as if he was their own child’ (93). By talking about Percy and telling stories about him, each family member claims him as their ‘own’ and in doing so aligns themself with his success.
That idea of the appropriation and ownership of stories deepens as the biographer uncovers more and more about Edna, not just as an artist but also as a mother and wife. She finds herself at loggerheads with Edna’s daughter, Victoria, who begins to feel threatened by the fact that the biographer is telling these stories, defining her mother, yet has no familial link to her.
“I’m only trying to understand who Edna was, what was motivating her.”
“You think I don’t know who she was?” (224)
Victoria’s knowledge of her mother is threatened because the story that is being told isn’t the one she knows, and it contradicts her understanding of her mother and redefines her.
The idea of ownership of stories is seen again when the biographer seeks out Edna’s adoptive son, John. ‘I had travelled thousands of kilometres chasing a story that didn’t belong to me’ (260). A final thought in the last chapter of the ‘biography’ cements this twisting, turning exploration of story and how we as humans use it to create ourselves.
Just as with any story, the meaning we take from a life depends on where we choose to end it … But the story of Edna’s life does not end with her death. (273-274)
The Biographer’s Lover is canny in its weaving of multiple narratives, and the ‘biography’ chapters are so expertly written it becomes difficult to remember that this long-lost Australian artist is, in fact, fictional. Murray is gifted in her writing of people: the biographer isn’t hugely likeable as a character, but there is a depth and nuance to her that unravels slowly, leaving you chastising yourself for making quick judgements and not looking beyond what you’re told as a reader. The only real downside is the plot, which is slow and winding for nine eighths of the book then explodes in a burst of soap-opera-esque revelation towards the end. That aside, it’s an accomplished novel, with ideas that run deeper than first glance, and one that pays homage to the art of story.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. Previously Arts and Events Editor of Scoop Events, she now works in the marketing team at Fremantle Press.