Kate Grenville, One Life: My Mother’s Story. Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing. RRP: $29.99, 272pp, ISBN: 9781922182050
Head submerged in the horse trough, held by her father’s hand choking on black water and fear: that’s Nance’s earliest memory, a punishment for crying too much. Little wonder then, that matters of love and survival form the warp and weft of her biography as told by daughter, Kate Grenville in One Life: My Mother’s Story.
Grenville’s most recent works — known collectively as the ‘Colonial Trilogy’ — took branches of her own family tree as inspiration for fictions that spoke eloquently of, and to, Australia’s past. The history in One Life is much more personal, as Grenville weaves twenty notebooks full of mother Nance’s memoir fragments and earlier taped conversations to create ‘the book she might have written, if she’d ever had the right pencil’ (257).
Quick to point out that her mother is not your usual subject for a biography, it’s apt that Grenville tells her story in an unusual way. Written in third person through Nance’s imagined consciousness, a unique blend of biographic and fictional approaches lift this character off the page. In the process, Grenville proves why it’s so important that we be given the chance to read about those lives never glimpsed in museum collections or sonnets.
Childhood is a blur of different towns, homes and schools for Nance Russell. Bert’s roaming eye and Dolly’s bad temper (interdependent, obviously) make for a miserable marriage and although Nance feels that strain, she still understands that ‘the less a family was a family, the more the longing for it would never leave’ (84). This glitch of human nature is the sadness at the core of her story, but also its strength. It’s easy to identify with that young child relishing a quiet sulk in the woodheap, or — in an Anne of Green Gables phase — pondering the romantic appeal of life as an orphan. For Nance, like many of us, that ‘secret handshake’ (36) of literature is a lifeline.
That hand is stretched out again in a different way during the miserable days of Nance’s pharmacy apprenticeship, when housemate Meg (atheist, socialist and feminist) introduces Nance to Socrates’ maxim, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ (54). Open-minded and keenly aware of the power words can hold, Nance adopts this as a mantra of sorts and the reader joins her quest to make sense of how her experiences fit into the bigger picture.
In many ways, One Life is a common tale of frustrated dreams and quietly unhappy lives, set against a familiar Australian backdrop. What surprises is the way Nance conditions herself to work through sadness, declaring that ‘not being loved was a bleak and chronic pain like a toothache. But admitting and even accepting it let you become a person again. Not being loved didn’t have to stop you’ (170). This brutal pragmatism may be admirable to some, but (as is often the case in life writing) for me it invites questions as to whether we are hearing the voice of raw experience or one composed years later, after much reflection and rationalising.
Grenville has said that her mother’s jottings were mostly matter-of-fact, and the prose One Life offers is for the most part, brisk and unadorned, giving a clear sense of the person who could ‘get on and live life around that fact’ (170) of not being loved. Yet we also know how deeply Nance felt poetry —‘these words that had the power to make the world look different’ (36)— and there are only brief flashes of this spirit embedded in the otherwise plain writing. Those moments are the true gems in the book, most memorably Nance’s early happiness on the farm with brother Frank and reminiscing with her mum about the Caledonia Hotel, ‘memories … like coins they passed … warm from one hand into the other’ (189).
Love of family and determination to provide a stable home life is at the heart of everything Nance does, whether it’s juggling motherhood and pharmacy, turning a blind eye to her husband’s (many) failings, or laying bricks for their new house. Knowing this book was created as a patchwork of sorts, I did sometimes find myself wondering what was fabric and what was embroidery in these scenes, where Nance seems to become a mouthpiece for the feminist movement, many years before its inception.
Perhaps these doubts are best dealt with by remembering the book’s publishers promote it as ‘an act of imaginative sympathy’. Nancy K. Miller asserts that writers of filial memoir ‘don’t get to choose our families but we get to revise the myths’ (x). We can never know what revisions Grenville has made, consciously or otherwise. Do we need to? Reading Proust as a fifty-year-old BA undergraduate, Nance could grasp ‘that if life was the wound, art was its healer, because art was the wound shared’ (253). That’s where the real power of One Life lies: in exposing some of her mother’s wounds, Grenville can offer to readers the embodiment of love, acceptance, openness and determination in Nance Gee, an exceptional, average woman. The sort of woman we can likely glimpse among family, friends or even ourselves. The perfect subject for a biography.
Grenville, Kate. One Life: My Mother’s Story. (Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing, 2015.)
Miller, Nancy K. Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.)
In previous lives, Marie O’Rourke has been a secondary English teacher and stay-at-home mum. She is now a Ph.D. candidate at Curtin University, delving into memory through experimentation with the will-o’-the-wisp that is the lyric essay.