Review: One life – Kate Grenville inhabits her mother’s life and times

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Kate Grenville reflects on her mother’s life. Photo: Nic Walker
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One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville.

Kate Grenville reflects on her mother’s life. Photo: Nic Walker

Kate Grenville reflects on her mother’s life. Photo: Nic Walker

One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville.

Kate Grenville reflects on her mother’s life. Photo: Nic Walker

One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville.

ONE LIFE: MY MOTHER’S STORY Kate Grenville Text, $29.99

When Kate Grenville’s mother, Nance, died, she left behind many beginnings of a memoir, never completed. I wonder if she suspected that her daughter – the author – might pick up the pen where she had left off. Or perhaps she thought her words might be of use when compiling family history. Grenville saw them as the start of something significant, and has used these fragments to write an account of her mother’s life.

Nance Russell was born in 1912 on a small farm near Gunnedah. Her own mother, Dolly, was trapped in an unhappy marriage arranged by her parents, and urged her husband to move often in search of greener pastures. When Nance was six they left the farm, and the following years moved from place to place, running hotels and groceries. Nance and her brother, Frank, were often boarded out or sent to stay with relatives, and by the age of nine, Nance had been the new girl at school six times. Grenville captures a childhood starved of love, with sparse moments when Nance is given something resembling affection, such as a brief stay with her Auntie Rose, who is the opposite of her own mother:

“She took Nance’s hand, smoothed it over the pastry, so smooth and silky. When you’re an old lady like me, she said, with children of your own, you’ll show them how to make a jam tart and you’ll say, My dear old Auntie Rose who loved me so much, she was the one showed me this.”

The itinerant child becomes an itinerant young woman, and in accordance with her mother’s wishes enters pharmacy as an apprentice, taking classes at the University of Sydney. One of only four women in a class of 80, she also works long hours at a chemist in Enmore and stays at a boarding house. The Depression is on, so Nance has little choice but to continue.

On a trip home she learns that her father has been having an affair, and for the first time understands something of her mother’s behaviour. “There’d have been other women, Nance realised now, heaven knew how many … every town, every pub would have had a woman who caught Bert’s eye. It was why Dolly was forever wanting to move. Another town, another hotel.”

Nance passes her pharmacy exams and marries a kind enough man who is a solicitor, Ken Gee, though she is oblivious to his own secret life. When it emerges he is a Trotskyite revolutionary, she realises her own marriage is not so different from her parents’, and that “not being loved was a bleak and chronic pain like a toothache”. She stays with him for their children and goes about finding other sources of happiness. She fights the (still recognisable) battle to balance her work and the needs of her family, and sacrifices much while expecting little.

Grenville has set herself a challenging task to write of someone so close – her own mother – without allowing her perspective as daughter to take precedence. At the end of the book she is not yet born, and only in the postscript does she mention her own memories of her mother. I was left wishing for more of this intimacy with the author, more of this deeply personal way of seeing. Wishing this were more a memoir and less a biography of her mother’s life. I read One Life feeling as though I were looking at a reflection of a reflection. And while Nance’s life was fascinating, and Grenville’s writing captures emotion in startlingly original ways, the book ends just as we begin to  bridge this distance.

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