One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville

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Reviewed by Victoria

Sorting through her mother’s things after her death in 2002, Kate Grenville came across an exercise book with her mother’s handwriting in it: ‘I have often thought of writing a book – people do it all the time – it can’t be that hard.’ In fact, all Kate found in the notebook was ‘a mass of fragments’, anecdotes and stories she’d heard her mother recount in her lifetime, about her childhood and the stories of her ancestors. It occurred to Kate, though, reading these notes, that her mother had lived during a period of profound and extraordinary change in 20th century Australia. When her mother was born, there was no free education beyond primary school, hardly any women worked outside the home and if they did, their pay packet was a fraction of their husband’s. By the time Kate herself was growing up, there had been two world wars and a social revolution. She decided to tell the story that her mother had never managed to write, on the grounds that it would be both universal and particular, the story of a lost generation and a way of life that seemed arcane and yet was still available to those with long memories.

And what a story it is. In many ways it begins when Kate Grenville’s grandmother, Dolly, was married off at 29 to her father’s helper on the farm. Albert Russell was a handsome man, large, strong and practical. But Dolly had no desire to marry him; she wanted to train to be a schoolteacher, and when the time came to find a husband she wanted someone more reliable than Bert. But in the end she was obliged to give in to her parents’ wishes and the wedding photo included in the biography says it all. The newlyweds have a foot or two of clear space between them, and Dolly’s thin-lipped, narrow-eyed face is set and grim. Eighteen months or so after the wedding, Dolly discovered papers concerning financial support for an illegitimate child of Bert’s. He’d made one of her mother’s farm workers pregnant and her mother had arranged it all. Dolly was outraged and hurt to think her own mother had tricked her into marriage with this man. She separated from Bert for a while, but they already had one child and how could she manage the farm alone? She took him back, and Kate Grenville’s mother, Nance, was born nine months later.

Nance grew up in a family that was never happy and mostly dispersed. Dolly and Bert were able but restless, and they moved frequently from place to place, running bars and eventually a hotel. By the time Nance was nine she had been to six different schools, several of which had required her to lodge with other families. She longed for stability, for her brothers and her father, for peaceful, ordinary existence. Voicing her feelings once to her mother, Dolly had said scornfully: ‘Oh, you children! You children don’t matter!’ Nance took it to her wounded heart. Her mother was capable of terrifying tempers and she learnt young not to let on how she really felt. There was one stroke of luck, though. For a couple of years she went to St George High School for girls, a government run school that was hard to get into, but her father went and charmed the headmistress. The teaching was excellent, the work demanding and Nance discovered brains she never knew she had. It was clear she was capable of learning a profession, and Dolly decided it for her. She had heard that pharmacy was a good degree for someone of Nance’s circumstances, as it could be undertaken as a three-year apprenticeship with simultaneous university courses. Knowing no better, Nance agreed to it.

In fact, she hated it. The days were long and exhausting, the chemistry harder than she expected. It was a drear and loveless life she felt she was living and she still missed her family (yet again, she’d had to move to be closer to the university). She made friends, moved into a boarding house with some of them, but it was desperately hard. She might well have given up, had the Depression not been happening at the same time. Aware she was lucky in comparison to others, she stuck it out.

It took Nance a long time to find love, but finally she married a young solicitor who enthused her with his education and his ideas. Ken was a committed Communist, though his ideals didn’t withstand the physical labour he had to do during the Second World War. The marriage was not unhappy in the way her mother’s had been, but it was a misalliance nevertheless, one in which Nance still felt lacking in ordinary warmth and affection. But she was a woman who was never afraid of hard work in whatever form it took, and she loved her children with a selfless but grounded devotion. She made the best of whatever hand she was dealt by fate.

Kate Grenville’s book is an extraordinary tribute to a wonderful woman, written in a voice that sounds like it really does belong to Nance. It is moving, poignant, tender and luminous, a seamless act of ventriloquism undertaken by a daughter who not only loved her mother but respected and admired her, too. I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want it to end. It is incredible to think about all that has changed in our daily situation in the past century or so, and frankly, we don’t know we’re born. What would my generation make of the life that Nance had to live? There would, I fear, be much whining and complaining. It’s good for us to be reminded of how grinding hard work and widespread poverty affected our parents and our grandparents. But you don’t read this book for the lesson in social politics it delivers; you read it because it is utterly enthralling, and full of love.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Kate Grenville, One Life; My Mother’s Story (Canongate: London, 2015). 978-1782116851, 272 pp., hardback.

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