Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

‘A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work’ by Bernadette Brennan

Brennan

2017, 298 p. & notes

This book is exactly what the title promises: a study of Helen Garner and her work.  It’s not, and nor does it purport to be, a full biography but is instead a ‘literary portrait’, firmly based on and in Garner’s own writings and writing practices.

The author (who, judging from her picture on the back page is much younger than I thought she would be) uses the publication sequence of Garner’s books as its organizing principle, but it seems in both the introduction and conclusion that she at one stage contemplated a different structure.

It is too simple to say that Garner’s body of work is one book, but everything she has written is interrelated. Over a period of forty years she has revisited themes, relationships, situations, characters and questions. Because houses, and their domestic spaces of intimacy and negotiation sit at the core of all Garner’s fiction, I originally thought to structure this study around Garner’s primary spaces: bedrooms, kitchens, courtrooms and public institutions… Such readings, however, do not lend themselves to a full and coherent appreciation of Garner’s development as a writer…. In the end I decided to structure this portrait so that each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing. Some rooms have alcoves, others debouch into wider spaces; all are connected by passageways. (p. 7)

I must confess that I forgot about this intended motif until the author returned to it in the closing pages of the book, where she alludes to Henry James’ metaphor of the house of fiction, and Garner as a ‘watcher’ through windows. I don’t find it a particularly useful structure, and as it would seem, neither did the author, as it is left largely untouched through most of the text.

Instead, the book is presented in two parts: Part 1 Letters to Axel and Part II Questions of Judgment.  ‘Axel’ was Axel Clarke, the son of  historian Manning and linguist Dymphna Clark and a close friend from university days to whom Garner wrote often and honestly. His archive of letters to and from Garner, deposited in the National Library of Australia are a significant resource for Brennan. He died in 1990, after a long friendship with Garner tinged with tension  over her ‘use’ of his illness with a brain tumour in ‘Recording Angel’, one of the stories in Cosmo Cosmolino (1992), the last of the works analysed in Part I.   The ‘letters to Axel’ form a useful organizing device, although ‘1942-1992’ or ‘The First Fifty Years’ would have done just as well.  Each of the seven chapters focuses on a major work and Brennan  interweaves personal details, gleaned from Garner’s own works and interviews, and literary analysis based on the books themselves.

Part II, Questions of Judgment starts with The First Stone, the first non-fiction book that took Garner into the courtroom as the basis for her narrative, a practice that she has followed in Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief and most recently in her Monthly essay ‘Why She Broke‘.  The chapter on The First Stone is the longest in the book and it marks not only Garner’s shift into long-form non-fiction writing, but also her most contentious book that provoked questions among her critics about her commitment to feminism and how that feminism was defined, and her attitude towards younger women.  Readers who do not like Garner’s work often criticize her insertion of herself into both her fictional and non-fictional writing, and Brennan (among others) is critical of Garner’s personal intervention in the form of letters to Master Alan Gregory, the man accused of sexual harassment. I had not realized the legal tightrope that her publishers trod with this book, and it took its toll on her relationship with Hilary McPhee.  It is a book that still evokes controversy. Most of the books in this second part are non-fiction, which is the genre in which Garner has predominantly worked in the last decades. The exception is The Spare Room, which is the novelized retelling of a real life experience when a friend undergoing an alternative treatment for cancer stayed with her. Brennan’s book closes with Everywhere I Look, Garner’s recent collection of essays.

It is not necessary to have read Garner’s books to enjoy this literary portrait, but it certainly helps to have done so.  Critiques of short story and essay collections are always difficult to write and read because the act of describing them often eviscerates them, and  several of Garner’s publications fall into this genre. Nonetheless, Brennan gives enough of the flavour of Garner’s works to jog the memory or provide sufficient background for her analysis to make sense.

It is not an authorized biography as such, in that Garner had veto power over it. She made available to Brennan her diaries, letters and drafts that are currently embargoed at the NLA, and participated in interviews with the author. It’s a rich, textured archive.

This is not a biography, and yet we do learn about  Helen Garner those things she chooses to reveal about herself, either through interviews or mostly through her own writing.  We read about her difficult relationship with her father, her life in share-house Carlton that prompted Monkey Grip, her three marriages, her daughter and grandchildren.  There are things we do not learn, too, most particularly who the ‘Philip’ character who floats through her early fictional writing was based on.  I did not realize the persistence of Garner’s religious quest, thinking that she had left it behind after Cosmo Cosmolino (which I reviewed here and did not enjoy). I remember, but did not fully appreciate, the virulence of the debate about The First Stone and was unaware of the legal and literary maneuvering that preceded its publication.  In my review of Postcards from Surfers, I wondered about how a book of short stories was put together, and in Brennan’s book I saw the collaboration between editor and author in constructing a ‘work’ of short stories as a distinct entity.  Through her diaries it is clear that the naive, ‘I-know-nothing-about-the-legal-system-but…’ stance that comes through in her courtroom non-fiction is a deliberate, and somewhat disingenuous choice.

Most of all, though, I am left with a sense of the writer at work– and work it surely is. The reading, the thinking, the writing and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. The author’s drawing together of observations from other writers and thinkers – most particularly that scholar of the art of biography, Janet Malcolm. The richness and texture of thought and reflection. The edginess and vulnerability of putting yourself out there as an author. The web of connections between people in the local intellectual and literary scene.  A life lived in the mind, but also in the everyday. A particular way of looking.  All the things that I appreciate most in Garner’s work.

My rating: 8.5

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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I have posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

 

‘A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson’ by Kerrie Davies

wifes_heart

2017, 225p

David Marr, the celebrated biographer, has proclaimed for himself the rule that “biographers should stay out of sight”. I suspect that he would be ‘tut-tutting’ the whole way through this book, because the biographer/author Kerrie Davies is very much on-stage, using her own early 21st century experience as a lens through which to examine and reflect on the marriage and separation of Bertha and Henry Lawson.  The book both starts and finishes with Davies’ own reflections on single parenthood and she shuttles back and forth between her own memoir and a biographical examination of Bertha and Henry Lawson.

Henry Lawson, as most (I hope!) Australian readers would know, is one of Australia’s best known writers, with his short story ‘The Drover’s Wife’  forming one of the staples of school anthologies in the last century.  He wrote in the 1890s and early 1900s at a time when ‘Australianness’ was being explored in writing through the pages of The Bulletin and through the works of the Australian impressionists – Roberts, McCubbin, Streeton et al. He is a much-biographied subject, as Davies found, with biographers falling into two camps: those who blamed his wife Bertha for pursuing child support payments and hounding him to imprisonment, and those who saw Bertha as the long-suffering, separated wife bringing up her children alone.

Davies falls very much into the second category. She, too, has brought her daughter up alone when her marriage to her musician husband fell apart through his incessant travelling, and this sense of identification with Bertha permeates the book. I’m not sure that it makes good biography, but I don’t know if a ‘pure’ biography was ever her intention. Certainly she draws on primary documents, including court files, letters, memoirs, secondary sources and Henry’s own writings, reproducing important paragraphs in the text itself, and footnoting the sources at the rear of the book.  In this way she has certainly given Bertha an identity and agency. She has carefully researched the legislation governing divorce at the turn of the twentieth century, and beautifully integrates Henry, in particular, into the bohemian and literary milieu of the day.  However, as a journalist, she makes no claim to be a historian, and in describing the Darlinghurst gaol in which Henry was imprisoned, she turns us over directly to the hands of the archivist at the gaol, Deborah Beck, in a manner reminiscent of meeting-the-historian in ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. In fact, that same sense of anachronistic identification that permeates ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ is evident in this book as well, and it means that as reader, you’re taken along for the story in the present just as much for the history.

Although a very different sort of endeavour, this book evoked for me Jennifer Gall’s Looking for Rose Paterson. There’s a symmetry in that both researchers are drawing an otherwise unseen woman (a mother, a wife) out from the background of these two writers – A. B. Paterson and Henry Lawson- who are together synonymous with colonial nationalistic turn-of-the-century writing.  But Bertha Lawson was not unseen: she wrote her own memoir, her correspondence is found amongst Henry’s works, people knew her and she looms large in his lifestory as the force that he resisted and railed against, and which eventually- in the eyes of his champions- brought him undone.  The subtitle of the book is “The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson”, and Davies has succeeded in telling this untold story.  “No one is more pleased to see you yourself again than I am” Bertha wrote to Henry (p 185) during one of his recurrent phases of sobriety before lapsing into alcoholism again. In seeing Bertha, and the cycles of alcoholism and cruelty, unsuccessful reconciliations, legal maneuverings, emotional bargaining, justifications and accusation, we see  Henry ‘himself’ also.

The author’s paper to the 2015 Australasian Association of Writing Programs conference discussing her writing decisions can be found here.  (What a fantastic site! they have all the papers from decades of conferences).

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10

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I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

‘An Isolated Incident’ by Emily Maguire

maguire

2016, 243 p

The reviewing cycle for a much-talked-about book seems to move so quickly that, after a few months, everything seems to have been already said and people are moving onto the next new much-talked-about book. So I come- at last-  to ‘An Isolated Incident’, which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize, longlisted for the Miles Franklin and commended for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.

It all makes me feel rather outgunned when I say that my response is rather lukewarm.

You probably already know that it’s about a murder of a young woman, Bella Michaels, an aged-care worker in the small country town of Strathdee.  Despite being described by the publishers as a ‘psychological thriller’, this book doesn’t really fill that description at all. Instead, it is the description of grief and the surrounding media manipulation of a murder report.  We, as readers, know as much or as little about the murder as the police do.

It is narrated from the alternating viewpoints of the murdered girl’s sister Chris, a barmaid at the local pub in Strathdee, and May, the journalist dispatched from the city to report on the crime.  The book is arranged chronologically, starting with daily entries on the 6th April, then becoming less frequent as media interest in the case wanes. Chris’s sections are written in the first person, using a conversational tone and capturing the cadences of a fairly rough, indifferently educated country woman. May’s narrative is written in the third person, interspersed with the trashy interviews and articles that she has written over this time.

For much of it,  I felt as if I were reading an article at the supermarket checkout or watching Sixty Minutes. I know that this was probably intentional on the part of the author, drawing readers into the voyeurism of crime-watching and armchair speculation.  This is just one of the things that the book does well. It also captures well the lazy, casual misogyny of everyday life, magnified further in a small town, and the juxtaposition of an active, consensual  female sexuality alongside non-consensual sexual creepiness.  Sexuality was used to manipulate by both men and women in this book.  She also puts her finger on – although does not explore further – the connections between offences that are portrayed as only “isolated incidents”

This had nothing to do with what happened to Bella and what happened to Bella had nothing to do with Tegan Miller [another woman murdered in Strathdee] and none of it had to do with the rich Sydney housewife left out to rot in the street which had nothing to do with the Nigerian girls stolen as sex slaves or the Indian woman eviscerated on a bus or the man grabbing women off the streets of Brunswick.

None of it connected, she knew, and yet, and yet, it felt like it. It felt to May, that there was a thread connecting it all, and if she could find it she could follow it back, see where it began. Rip it out and examine its source. p.343

“Rip it out and examine its source”: a noble aim, but not one achieved in this book.  Sometimes I feel as if I’ve read a book that has been consciously written for a book-group discussion or to air “an issue”.  I couldn’t quite shake this feeling when reading this book.  Don’t get me wrong- I am a member of a bookgroup myself, and know that I would happily participate in the discussions that this book is likely to generate for the next couple of years.  However, I don’t like feeling that I’ve been targeted as a market.

There’s the enjoyment that a reader has during reading, as distinct from the discussion and contemplation afterwards. I found that the book dragged and it was really only in the last 1/3 that I found myself becoming more engaged.  Until then, I was underwhelmed by the vacuity of both women, and irked by the supernatural angle that was introduced halfway through. Just as the case ambled along, with little progress, so too did this book.   Perhaps this is one of those books where its strength lies after reading it, rather than while reading it.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10

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I’ve added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

‘The Legacy’ by Kirsten Tranter

tranter

2010, 438 p.

Like all good titles,  the title ‘The Legacy’ is a double-barrelled one.  It could refer to the unexpected financial bequest that sets the chain of events in this novel into action, or it could refer to the aftermath of the news of a death.  Both interpretations work.

The novel opens with a prologue voiced by Ingrid, as her step-daughter  Fleur watches Ingrid emerging from a beating in what we assume is domestic violence.  Somehow – illogically – this violence seems incongruous with the New York affluence within which Ingrid is living.  This is the last we hear of Ingrid in her own voice.  From then on, the narrative is taken over by Julia, her friend from Australia, whose relationship with Ingrid oscillates between awe, jealousy, love and anger.

Told in retrospect, Julia’s life was financially straitened and emotionally unsatisfying. She worked at a video store while she was at university, and became friendly with Ralph, who called in at the video store and watched films behind the counter with her. Ralph was wealthy, and Julia was drawn into his wake, invited to lunches at his parents’ quietly opulent Kirribilli House, overlooking the Sydney Harbour. She was not the only young woman attracted to the Kirribilli enclave; so too was Ingrid, brought over from Perth by Ralph’s aunt Maeve when Ingrid’s parents diee.  Ingrid enchanted Ralph and his family, and when Ralph’s father died Ingrid was left a huge legacy- something encouraged by Ralph who was infatuated with Ingrid, despite his bisexual leanings. Ingrid used her legacy to travel to New York, and it was there that she met an older man, Gil Grey and his precocious young daughter Fleur, lauded as a prodigy for her artwork from early childhood.  She married him, despite the misgivings of her friends Ralph and Julia who were unnerved by his controlling nature.  The friends drifted apart.  But when news came of Julia’s death in the Twin Towers (and how telling that I just need to say ‘Twin Towers’ and you know exactly what I mean), the increasingly-ill Ralph dispatched Julia over to New York to find out what happened to her and to fill in the details.

This is a long book – 438 pages- but I didn’t find that it dragged.  The first 2/3 of the book reminded me of an Antipodean Brideshead Revisited or Great Gatsby, with the outsider narrator watching wealthy people living out their greed and insecurity. There is an artificiality and staginess to the lives of these wealthy and ruthless people, and the glamour of the New York art scene does not disguise the curdled ugliness of  these so-called ‘ beautiful people’.    The last 1/3 of the book took on the pace and tone of a mystery, although its ending was too open-ended to be really satisfactory on that score.  The descriptions of both Kirribilli and New York were well-drawn, and the dialogue flowed  so naturally that it was barely noticeable.  There were too many paranormal deadends – a neighbour who read tea-leaves and too many dream sequences- but she captured well the uneasy line between enterprise and exploitation, sexual adventureness and abuse.  The book was an amalgam of a coming-of-age love triangle, shot through with a mystery.  It worked for me.

My rating: 7.5/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup (the Ladies Who Say Oooh)

aww2017-badge I’ve posted this review to the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Wild Island’ by Jennifer Livett

livett

431 p., 2016

From the opening lines of this book, you hear echoes of a book you have read before:

Reader, she did not marry him, or rather, when at last she did, it was not so straightforward as she implies in her memoirs. Jane Eyre is a truthful person and her story is fascinating, but some things she could not bring herself to say. Certain episodes in her past, she admits, ‘form too distressing a recollection ever to be willingly dwelt upon’ .. My name is Harriet Adair, and forty years ago on that ship I was Jane Eyre’s companion (xii)

Thus begin Harriet Adair’s own memoirs, written forty years later.  Readers of Jane Eyre have met her before, as Grace Poole, caring for the mad Bertha Mason at Thornfield.  But in this telling, Bertha did not die in the fire thus freeing Edward Rochester to marry our Jane.  The woman we knew as Grace Poole was really Harriet Adair, and Bertha was instead  Anna – not Antoinette as in Wide Sargasso Sea, a model for this book in extrapolating and subverting Jane Eyre into a new story. There was a way in which Edward would be free to marry Jane, but it involved sailing to Van Diemen’s Land to seek out Captain Booth, now a commandant at Port Arthur Penal Settlement, who was the only man who could confirm an earlier marriage that would invalidate Edward’s marriage to Anna (Bertha). Part way along the journey it is decided that Edward and Jane will return to England, and so off they sail back into the northern hemisphere to become shadowy, background characters who tether this book to its original inspiration but play no further role.

There have been other books that have sprung from a much loved story – Wide Sargasso Sea is one; Pemberley is another- but in this book Jennifer Livett has added another level of difficulty.  The opening pages have two lists of characters: the first a list of historical characters drawn from the real-life inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land in the late 1830s and early 1840s; and the second a list of fictional characters, some of whom have been taken from Jane Eyre, others created to mingle with the real-life Hobartians.  The research for this book is exhaustive- and exhausting.  In her acknowledgments at the rear of the book, the author mentions that this book has been forty years in gestation, and I believe it.

From my own research into Port Phillip at the time that this book was set, I know these historical characters and, for me, there was a little leap of recognition as if I’d seen Tulip Wright (who later turned up in Melbourne) in his brilliant-hued waistcoat, disappearing around a corner.  You probably know them too. We’ve met Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin in several books previously (see here and here),  and Mathinna from Richard Flanagan’s Wanting makes an appearance. John Gould the bird-artist and his wife Eliza are here too, and there’s even Mad Judge Montagu and Charles Swanston, the bank director whose finances propped up the Port Phillip expedition, now immortalized in one of Melbourne’s main streets.

Livett has a beautiful turn of phrase: take for example her description of black swans, heads-down feeding, looking “like black mops floating on the surface” (p. 245).  Her ear for dialogue and her historical felicity are first rate. The details are absolutely accurate but -oh- there are so many of them and I often found myself wondering if a reader less steeped in Tasmanian/Port Phillip politics would find them overwhelming.

One of my favourite quotes about Port Phillip society is the Port Phillip Gazette’s observation that “Melbourne boils over like a bush cauldron with the scum of fierce disputes”. It’s a characterization of colonial life which holds true for many of nineteenth century port towns across the British Empire including Hobart. In this book we are taken to the factional conflict  between Sir John Franklin and his colonial secretary John Montagu, an adherent of the Arthurite faction who had prospered under the long governorship of Franklin’s predecessor Lieutenant Governor George Arthur. We are taken to the politics of the transportation policy and its change over time, with the cessation of the assignment system.  At times the narrative becomes a vehicle for explaining the politics, and at this point, it threatened to collapse under the weight of so much didacticism and so many peripheral characters.

And yet, even for a reader familiar with this period of Tasmanian history, reading this book brings this history alive, especially the world of middle-class women who have been swept up into the circuits of empire through the postings of their husbands to official positions throughout the Empire.  Livett captures well the jostling for position, the grabbing at opportunities that opened up in a settler-colonial economy, the importance of patronage and   the censoriousness among women restricted to a round of visiting and levees and balls. She is completely at home with the ‘networks of empire’ conceptualization of colonialism that underpins much recent historiography:

…there are always more connections than we know about, across the widest spaces. So many links between the colony and England, most of them fluid. Water, ink, blood, each carrying its own cargo. Frail ships criss-crossing the seas, their holds packed with innocent-looking objects as dangerous as guns: china tea sets; bolts of flannel; packets of seeds and bank drafts. All bearing the message that there are certain ways in which life must be lived, and ways in which it most assuredly must not.” p 44

At the same time, the author is pulling the strings of the Jane Eyre connection, with the question of whether Rowland Rochester  (Edward Rochester’s brother) had ever lived in Tasmania providing the narrative pull of the story. St John Wallace, Jane Eyre’s rather wet (in my opinion) cousin is here with his wife Louisa, and Anna (the former mad Bertha) moves in and out of the story.

It’s a long book, but Livett has maintained Harriet’s narrative voice throughout the alternating chapters which switch between Harriet’s first person point of view and a third-person omniscient narrative.  It is this high-wire act of playing out a twist on the Jane Eyre story, while maintaining such historical integrity that most impresses me about this book. But then I find myself wondering: is there such a thing as too much historical integrity? I suspect that there is; and I think that the book threatened to be engulfed by it, even for someone familiar with and appreciative of its fidelity.

And so, my praise for Wild Island is not completely unalloyed.  Livett has aimed high, but much though I admire the accuracy and richness of her historical rendering of Van Diemen’s Land, I wonder if it ensnared her in details and explanations that stopped this book from really soaring.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

I’ve posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge website. aww2017-badge

‘Bush Studies’ by Barbara Baynton

baynton

1999, 140 P

A funny thing happened on the way to reading this book. I’ve been aware of it for some time, and always thought that I’d read it sometime but I never actually did anything about doing so. Then, last December, it turned up as our read for CAE bookgroup, even though no-one had selected it. When the secretary for the group rang to complain, she was told that another book that we had selected would be sent if it returned on time.  We’d have two books to read over Christmas, but that was no problem. When the second box of books arrived she opened it, only to find another book we hadn’t selected (Reading in Bed reviewed here). And so, here I was finally reading Bush Studies, even though I didn’t really mean to.

The version that I read started with an introduction by Elizabeth Webby. I often don’t read the introduction until I’ve finished a book, figuring that I need to read the book first before I want to engage with someone else’s opinion about it.  However, in this case I did read the intro, and I’m glad that I did so, as Webby’s introduction was followed by a memoir of Barbara Baynton written by her grandson in 1965.  In Webby’s introduction she follows Sally Krimmer and Alan Lawson in virtually debunking the whole of the family story that Baynton had put about and that her grandson had swallowed.The effect of this debunking was to put me on my guard as a reader, and alert me to the fact that this was one slippery woman.

Bush Studies is a compilation of short stories, and as I have said many times, I struggle to review a volume of short stories, aware as I am that what I am reading has been consciously curated from a selection of material that was written as stand-alone stories.  The first story, A Dreamer, was about a daughter returning home to her mother in a storm.  It was all very dramatic and Wuthering-Heights-y, and rather predictable.

The second story, Squeaker’s Mate is probably her best known story and one of the strongest in the collection.  The woman, unnamed until the end of the story, has been the mainstay of a timber-cutting partnership, hardworking and stoic and quite frankly taken advantage of by her feckless partner, Squeaker. When she is injured, it doesn’t take him long to find a substitute. There’s no freedom in this bush: it’s grey and harsh, just like Squeaker’s Mate’s prospects.

In Scrammy ‘And  an old shepherd is left to mind the selection. He talks to the dog to quell his fear that Scrammy ‘Hand- a bushman thief- would rob him. I found myself reading this book as a historian, mindful of John Hirst’s work on ex-convicts and their place amongst small selector society.  She’s writing from experience here, and it’s historically pitch-perfect.

The story I admired most was Billy Skywonkie, where a Chinese girl travels out to a selector. Racism is an unsettling undercurrent that runs through the story, and there’s no heroic bushman here. The story thrums with menace.

I have no idea how to read Bush Church at all. Is it a comic piece?

The final story The Chosen Vessel reminded me, as it does most readers, of Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife in the isolation and stoic vulnerability that being left behind in the bush engenders.  It’s not a snake she’s frightened by, but a man – not unlike the old convict in Scrammy Hand, but she has more to fear that mere robbery. I’m not sure about the Virgin Mary twist at the end though, and the story was chilling enough without it.

No wonder Barbara Baynton has been placed in the constellation of late nineteenth-century ‘bush’ writers but it’s a different bush that she’s writing about in her stories. There’s no ‘legend’ here. There’s isolation, racism and menace in this bush, and it brutalizes men who brutalize women in turn.

Sue at Whispering Gums has written several separate posts on Bush Studies, where she writes far more thoughtfully than I have done, as I’m writing some two months after I read the book. Both Squeaker’s Mate and Billy Skywonkie have stayed with me, which speaks to their strength I think, because short stories tend to wash over me a bit. and I must say that I’m glad that I’ve finally read Bush Studies (even though I didn’t mean to!)

Source: CAE bookgroup

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I’ve posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

‘Births Deaths Marriages: True Tales’ by Georgia Blain

blain

2008, 224 p.

When an writer dies, I often make a point of reading one of their books. It’s an act of tribute, I suppose, even though the reality is that all books live on beyond their authors eventually.  Although the book has to stand on its own merits, the recent death of the author probably does affect the way I read it. With an older author I read the book as the affirmation of a career, and with a younger writer it’s with a sense of lost opportunities and books not written.

This is particularly the case when the book is a beautifully crafted memoir, as Georgia Blain’s Births Deaths Marriages most surely is. As the daughter of the writer Anne Deveson, Georgia Blain died recently with a brain tumour at the age of 51, one day before her mother also died after many years living with dementia. In this series of autobiographical essays, we have met the whole family- mother, father, husband and daughter, and the overwhelming feeling that I am left with is: “I think I would have liked you”.

The book starts and finishes with a chapter titled “A Room of One’s Own”. In the opening chapter, Blain returns to her childhood home, now up for auction, and remembers her mother typewriting in the 1970s as her children waited resentfully in the doorway, for the tip-tap of the typewriter to finish. In the essay that closes the book “A Room of One’s Own II”, she is now the writer, jostling with her husband Andrew for space in the shed at the back of their ugly house to use as a workroom.   The essays between these two bookends are arranged roughly chronologically, as she writes about her years in an ‘opportunity’ class for gifted students, travelling with her mother and brothers to Adelaide after her parents separate, losing her virginity, establishing a relationship with film-maker Andrew after other unsuccessful relationships, marriage counselling, having a child, buying a dog.  Her description of her ambivalence about motherhood is one of the most honest and raw accounts that I have read. Her descriptions of place are almost cinematographic: you can feel the hot prickle of the Adelaide summer; smell the salty tang of Sydney beaches and the dust of Terowrie, a disintegrating outback town, seems to coat your skin.  As with Helen Garner’s work in sketching both people and place, I liked the sharpness of her vision, as if she is looking through a window that is cleaner than the one I’m behind.

The book itself is not new: it was published nine years ago in 2008. Even though as the title suggests, the book is about relationships, it is also very much about the act of writing itself.  In an interview with Sophie Cunningham in Meanjin in 2008, she explains that the book started as a Ph D and that several chapters had been published in a range of literary journals, each with different editors. At the time of writing it, she had already published four novels and she reflects on her decision to write from her own life:

There is a private space and a public space, and within each there are many layers. I wanted to hold the private up to the light, to look at it and put it out there on the table for public viewing, but I need to think carefully about how I wanted to do this. (p. 128)… I believed and still do, that if I wrote about my own life and lives of those I love, I had to tell the truth. But foolishly, I believed the truth lay only in the immediate. (p 130)

It’s an odd mixture of the very ordinary  set alongside the particular circumstance of being the child of two journalists who had their own public personas, and as the sister of a brother whose schizophrenia was explored publicly in her mother’s own book Tell Me I’m Here. Most particularly, the essays are a conversation on paper with her parents as professionals.  She listens, with embarrassment, to an old tape of an interview her father conducted with Germaine Greer and realizes how ineffectual he was as journalist.  She describes her ambivalence over her mother’s writing about her brother, Jonathan, thereby making his story public property, in much the way that she has herself done in this book.

Indeed, much of the book is a dialogue with her mother as writer. After years of writing non-fiction, Anne Deveson tried to write a novel but was frustrated because it kept turning into autobiography or reportage. Blain, already a published novelist, decided to switch in the other direction:

We had switched places, my mother and I. And we looked at each other. Both mothers. Both writers. Both trying on each others shoes, taking a few steps back, eyes on our feet, before we glanced across, once again, curious as to how this had happened. (p 158)

Even though the chapters are self-contained, there is a real unity to the book, best captured by the circularity of the opening and closing chapters. She writes about the narrative problem of ‘finding’ the ending in a memoir, when life that still offered more. She found that she had reached the end of the book, almost without realizing it:

There was no need to search for it. It is right here where it had all looped back on itself, complete in this moment. Here is the place to stop, to pause before the next swoop of the arc continues following the path of all that has gone before, the same shape but a different line. (p. 163)

And a different line it certainly was to be, nine years later, even though she did not know that at the time.  Last year Georgia Blain began contributing a column to the Saturday Paper, talking about the brain tumour and the world of illness that she had been plunged into. The columns stopped late in the year.  Her friend, Charlotte Wood, wrote a beautiful tribute in the last edition for 2016. Yet in many ways and unconsciously at the time, Blain herself leaves us with her own words of comfort:

Because this is the place where I am, like my mother, writing about us. And I have so much more than I ever hoped for; I have love, work that I want to do, and a couple of rooms to move between each day.

My rating: 9/10

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book.

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I have linked this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017