Books

Ruby J. Murray
The Biographer’s Lover

Ruby J. Murray is the grandniece of Arthur Boyd and she has written an attractive, slender novel about an obscure but very great painter and the young biographer who creates the artist’s posthumous reputation. This is a book where lurid family secrets and harrowing personal histories become the keys to the apprehension of the life’s work and illuminate its significance. It’s also about one artist who discovers herself by writing about another.

Most who knew Edna Cranmer thought art was just her hobby. Her daughter, though, reckons she was more than just a Sunday painter. Determined to give her work the public it deserves, she commissions a young writer down on her luck to write a monograph on this undiscovered Georgia O’Keeffe of the Bellarine.

The young writer likes the paintings and loves the subject. It’s the project she’s been waiting for and she throws herself into it body and soul. She gives up her life in Melbourne – which wasn’t crash hot anyway – and moves to Geelong. The monograph turns into a full-dress biography and eventually a national campaign for recognition.

The Biographer’s Lover alternates between snippets of the life story and a memoir written by the biographer many years later reflecting on what she endured and learnt while piecing together Edna’s life. It’s an interesting literary manoeuvre as the two stories converge around the figure of an estranged adopted son who lives in France, but it’s all a bit scrappy and underdone.

Individual chapters are only a few pages long and our sense of the genius of Edna’s work, it’s scope and scale, remains inchoate. More narrative emphasis is given to the young scribe’s money troubles and the squabbling and stonewalling of Edna’s surviving relatives than the imaginative life of the artist. The ideas and themes that inspired her are only cursorily sketched and the concocted biography remains the merest pattern of plausible but forgettable dates and locations.

The biographer’s tale does work well as parochial drama about family skeletons rattling in closets and an interloper intent on the chase. Murray is very good at conjuring local colour, from the Bellarine Hills to the flatlands of the peninsula, the backlots of Geelong and the city’s football-mad locals. She has a good eye for detail and some of the book’s most memorable passages are simple descriptions of quiet suburban scenes, far from the maddening world of high art.  JR

Black Inc, 288pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 25, 2018 as "Ruby J. Murray, The Biographer’s Lover ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JR