One Life: My Mother’s Story
“My mother wasn’t the sort of person biographies are usually written about.” Kate Grenville’s recounting of her mother’s life makes a beautifully muted counterpoint to the whimsical grandiosity of Grenville’s 1988 novel Joan Makes History. Where Joan – an antipodean precursor to Forrest Gump – was everywoman and everywhere, Nance Russell’s life is limned with particularity and restraint.
Born in 1912, Nance’s early life was shaped by the unlucky trifecta of two world wars and the Depression. Her parents’ union was an unhappy one: Bert philandered, Dolly was a scold. They farmed, kept stores and hotels, never sticking at anything or any place for long. Often they uprooted Nance; other times she was left behind with strangers. But she was a clever girl and, after matriculating, was sent down to Sydney to train as a pharmacist. Nance hated every minute of her apprenticeship but, as the Depression bit deep, knew that she was lucky to have a job.
Photographs in the book attest that Nance was a plain-ish girl, but with a lovely smile and always “ready for a bit of fun”. Boys and men liked her, so that when, at the age of 28, she married Ken, a leftie firebrand, it wasn’t for want of experience or choice. Ken’s fire pretty soon burned out though, and a sense of mutual disappointment settled on their marriage.
Drawing on her mother’s false starts at a memoir as well as her own novelistic skill, Grenville exquisitely depicts the pre-modern cast – integrative, not disintegrative – to Nance’s acceptance of that disappointment, and to the consolations she found for herself.
She was surprised at how gentle she felt, how careful not to ask … Saving his pride. Ken seemed strong, but in protecting him she recognised what she’d always known: she was stronger than he was.
One Life is really half a life, giving us Nance’s antecedents, childhood and adult life up to the age of 38, with Kate about to be born. Was it to keep her mother’s life uninflected by hers that Grenville cut off the story just at the point of her own arrival in it? As Nance’s biographer, she seems tentative, arm’s-length, as if the story is not hers to tell. Only in the postscript does Grenville’s own voice emerge, vivid and warm, to offer a loving outline of the fulfilment – travel, education, independence – Nance found in her life’s second half. FL
Text, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2015 as "Kate Grenville, One Life: My Mother’s Story ". Subscribe here.