Books

Brenda Niall
Can You Hear the Sea?

In Can You Hear the Sea? Brenda Niall, author of biographies of Martin Boyd, Judy Cassab and Daniel Mannix, trains her eye on her grandmother, Agnes “Aggie” Maguire.

The daughter of Irish refugees who have flourished in the grim seaport of Liverpool, Aggie comes to Australia in 1888. One of her brothers, Joe, has a “weak chest” and the family hopes the climate will help. Nineteen-year-old Aggie and her sister Minnie, for whom the growing affluence of the family has only curbed freedoms, see an opportunity for independence.

Joe dies at sea. But before he dies he gives Aggie a box he has made in the carpenter’s shop. When Niall turns 10, Aggie gives it to her. It is a surprising gift. As an avid reader and strong believer in education, Aggie always gave them books. More than 70 years later, this box is the impetus for the book. But so are the memories of Aggie held dear by her 25 grandchildren. The centre of their Sundays in her poky flat in Melbourne’s Kew, Aggie was a big influence, although she rarely spoke of herself. Niall wants to make her grandmother’s “silence speak”. She turns out to be a fascinating subject.

Aggie moves from Melbourne to remote Burramine to teach. She marries a son of wealthy graziers, also Irish, who call her English, a nationality she rejects. The Riverina life at the turn of the century proves a complex world of torn loyalties, especially for Irish immigrants, and Niall expertly parses the tensions in Aggie’s family life.

This is a tumultuous time and there is a lot to unpack. What did this socially progressive woman make of the Boer War? Or World War I? What was her position on Federation? Or the place of women in it? These questions offer Niall opportunities to explore the issues more broadly, but Aggie is not representative of the times. She is her own person, and full of contradictions, although her blindness to the plight of Indigenous Australians dispossessed by these pioneering families is probably representative.

Can You Hear the Sea? feels doubly elegiac. This is a kind of Australian family that is now rare: large, extended, close knit. It is also a kind of biography on the way out. Niall has few sources at her disposal and yet those she does have – some letters, her mother’s “family memoir” – will not be available to future biographers. Hopefully people still find ways to write biographies that so adeptly capture the particularity of lived experience.  SH

Text, 304pp, $29.99

 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 4, 2017 as "Brenda Niall, Can You Hear the Sea? ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: SH

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