I first met Georgia Blain in a festival green room, about 2004. I had worried about this: someone had written one of those shitty reviews comparing our books, as happens to young writers, in a way that ends up casting you as rivals. With Georgia there was none of the usual green-room gush, nor was she aloof. She greeted me with a firm, simple cordiality, and I liked her at once. On stage, she told how her parents once took the family on holidays to a nudist camp. Georgia was 13. It was a hilarious and excruciating story, full of black wit and self-deprecation. I didn’t know that day how much I would grow to love her, but I knew she was decent, funny, honest and very clever.
Our friendship was slow to develop, and seemed to form itself in bursts, through crises. When Georgia’s teenage daughter, Odessa, suddenly became ill, and spent a terrifying few weeks in intensive care, I joined the others who left meals on the family’s doorstep. Georgia reported that each day she and her partner, Andrew, would return from the hospital starving. I was strangely comforted to know she could eat, that it was not just me who never lost my appetite during emotional catastrophe. The only way I could show my concern and regard was to cook: heavy stews, pies. I think our friendship grew out of Maggie Beer’s sour cream pastry.
Georgia was a prolific, astoundingly disciplined writer. When she died at 51, she had published 10 books. Another, about what it means to lose your command of language, written, impossibly, during her year of treatment, will be published in 2017. Her friend the novelist James Bradley wrote this week that he believed her memoir Births, Deaths, Marriages “unlocked something in Georgia’s work, liberating her somehow, for after it her writing shifted registers, becoming simultaneously more personal and more expansive”.
I agree, and my favourite of her books are the memoir and those following it. I loved Too Close to Home (2011), a fictional exploration of how quickly the trumpeted left-wing values of an urban middle-class couple crumble when they befriend an Indigenous neighbour, and self-delusion is stripped away. It was a gutsy move: white novelists generally don’t attempt to examine race relations outside the safety of historical fiction, and the book wasn’t without detractors. She told me she’d known that was inevitable, but fear of public criticism never stopped her.
A short fiction collection, The Secret Lives of Men (2013), was next – acute, poignant stories of men and women struggling with the disappointments and fears of middle age – and was widely praised.
Around this time, her mother, Anne Deveson, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The defining relationship of Georgia’s life began to dissolve in a horrifying, shattering way. Our friendship moved into new territory. My mother-in-law, also named Anne, was ageing and sick, too – another mighty mother refusing to submit to devastating illness. With Andrew and my partner, Sean, we spent evenings commiserating in black laughter about the challenges of helping care for the formidable Annes.
More and more as she went on, Georgia’s work was marked by truth-telling.
Her memoir describes birthing classes where others spoke of their joyful expectations of parenthood, but she was terrified. She wrote: “I wished I could say the same. I wanted to lie. But it felt too large, too important to lie about. I needed to speak the truth.”
This might be the best description of Georgia’s approach to writing, and living.
With her it was possible to admit to your most shameful meannesses of spirit, and be understood. And she revelled in telling hers. One afternoon she arrived at a party at our place, breathless from another emergency dash to Anne’s. Her mother had phoned her in anguish, hysterical. All her money had been stolen; she needed Georgia now. Surely there could be no theft, but the terror in her mother’s voice was real. Georgia leapt into the car, hurtled through weekend traffic across the city, parked askew outside Anne’s house, dashed up the steps. Her mother opened the door, serene but puzzled. What on earth could Georgia want? Of course she hadn’t called for her – why was she being so silly?
Very shaken, Georgia returned to her car, only to find a furious old man waiting for her. Frail but outraged, he began berating her for illegally parking. She apologised and explained about the emergency. This cut no ice; the man continued to shout abuse at her, she told us. She looked stricken, then sheepish: “And then – I lost it. I screamed at him in the middle of the street, this tiny old man, to just fuck off, you stupid old cunt.”
We shrieked with her in horror and delight and shame.
Later, whenever we could, our friend Tegan Bennett Daylight and I would coax Georgia out to lunch. These gatherings were defined by cackling confessions of our own worst behaviours, along with gleeful shredding of what we saw as others’ pretensions or vanities.
In November last year the bomb went off. Georgia had glioblastoma, the same tumour that had killed my mother in her 50s. Typically, Georgia refused evasions or false hope: she immediately accepted that there was no cure, that she would die; the question was how soon. Soon after her diagnosis I interviewed her about Between a Wolf and a Dog, her best novel. I wanted to ensure public discussion of her work didn’t cast our majestic, talented friend as Poor Cancer Woman. She was a writer first, was still working, must keep going for as long as she wanted.
Between a Wolf and a Dog is superb. The dreadful irony – that she had written a novel about a woman with brain cancer contemplating the end, while her own tumour was imminent but undiagnosed – is now well known. But the book is much more than this, filled with strong, compassionate insights into life’s ordinary beauties and sorrows, into forgiveness, the tiny details of a good life.
On Monday there was a memorial at the little hall next to St Stephen’s Anglican Church in Newtown. Hung around the butter-coloured walls were five of the beautiful, colourful bed quilts Georgia used to make in sewing frenzies between books. Under the quilts in front of the stage was a table covered in vases of hydrangeas, huge piles of them.
There were many speeches, short and sweet and funny. There was Georgia the adored control freak; her discipline and sense of order; her generosity as a friend; her addiction to buying and selling Danish furniture; her total honesty.
The day I interviewed Georgia was the first time she asked about my mother’s disease progression. I wanted to protect her from the savage facts, but Georgia cut off my evasions tenderly, firmly: “Just say it.”
This insistence on the truth, and Andrew’s and Odessa’s generosity in sharing Georgia with us in this past year, made space for some of the most profound conversations of my life. We lay on her lush green lawn that day and talked and talked: about writing, death, love. She said she’d never been a regretful person, and still wasn’t. Unbelievably, she was grateful for her luck. This from a woman who’d lost a brother to schizophrenia, drugs and suicide; who’d borne the early death of a difficult father; who was caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s; who now faced her own premature death. But she meant it: she knew she was loved, and she loved Odessa and Andrew with tremendous force. She was lucky to have had the life she wanted; for all its hardships, writing was a way of really living, right to your nerve endings.
In January, Georgia began her “Unwelcome Guest” columns in this paper about life with cancer. These are incandescent with truth and power. Her deepest scrutiny is of herself but as with all the best writing also turns outward, speaking of broader things: meditation, euthanasia, fear, the meaning of language, of vulnerability. The most stunning is a tribute to Andrew and his caring for her. She quoted from her journal, “I have absolute faith in him to shepherd me through to the end. This is the core of loving, the life force; it is the most fundamental act. It has honour and commitment and truth and misery and joy.”
The love of Andrew, Odessa and Georgia for each other has been awe-inspiring to witness. When it’s my turn to endure the unendurable, I will turn to their example.
Georgia was tall and strong, always. Even right near the end – when she could no longer walk far, nor use her right arm, when she needed voice recognition software to send a text – she radiated strength, generosity, humour. Her perfect skin, those sharp blue eyes. She never faded, was always her true self. That clear, steady gaze never wavered.
Lying on the lawn that day Georgia and I talked about narrative, and how once you master some of its craft as a writer, you begin to lose interest in it. She called it “constraining”.
It seems to me Georgia’s life’s course was a gradual and complete shedding of artifice. By the end, to me, she existed as total love, pure truth.
Enduring friendships, I read recently, have three phases: enchantment, necessary disenchantment, mature consolidation. Dearest G, I wish we’d had time for all three, but with you
I only ever made it to the first.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 24, 2016 as "Pure truth".
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