It's amazing to read a non-fiction work that requires you to remind yourself that it is not a novel. I've been a fan of Kate Grenville since I read The Lieutenant, one of my top five books in 2009. My admiration for her grew with The Secret River, skyrocketed with The Idea of Perfection, and continued with Sarah Thornhill. This year she wrote the story of her mother's life, a woman who was exceptional, but not a public figure. Many times throughout her life Nance Russell Gee set out to write about her family and her own life and left fragments that gave Kate Grenville a rich source of material.
She was born in 1912 to rural working class people who became pub owners and until the Depression, became increasingly successful to the extent that they were able to purchase a hotel. Her ancestor who first arrived in Australia had been transported for theft. Her childhood was notable for its many upheavals, sometimes sent off elsewhere to board near a school, sometimes new locations with the family. One memorable moment in school was described here:
When Mr. Crisp read poetry out loud, they could hear the little shake in his voice. Esme nudged Nance under the desk and smirked. Nance didn't smirk back. She was astonished at the thought: Mr. Crisp was feeling the same thing she did, a tenderness towards these words that had the power to make the world look different. It was like a secret handshake. You weren't the only one.
Nance was successful in school despite the many moves; at her mother's direction, she became one of the few women to become a pharmacist. For some years she worked for very little money for many hours as an apprentice as well as taking courses. And then the Depression arrived.
The story of her marriage is nuanced: she and Kenneth Gee were immediately drawn to each other though he was from a privileged background. Although she felt unloved she recognized their successful partnership over the years; they built a house together, he supported her when she successfully opened her own pharmacy (an unheard of undertaking), she went back to work when he wanted to study to become a barrister, they worked hard to build a good life for their children. Following are a few passages that tell what she was thinking about their marriage:
He loved his son, she knew. But she'd come to see that something in her husband was stunted. Grand, overwhelming feelings frightened him. He was content with something smaller. Perhaps I can't blame him, she thought. It's that cold upbringing he had. It's left him embarrassed by emotions. Having feelings meant going into some part of himself he wanted to keep hidden.
She and Ken had come together thinking it was because they liked each other, but something more primitive was at work, something that allowed each to recognise the other as good mating material. All those frogs puffing out their throats, bowerbirds collecting blue things, pigeons strutting and bobbing: it was all right to admit that this particular breeding pair wasn't so far removed from them.
They had a marriage and all the tendrils of social connection that went with being husband and wife. They had the children they'd made together, and it wasn't too late to have another. [They did and the author was born.] On both sides there was admiration and esteem. There was the affection that springs from knowing another person day and night for ten years. These were not nothing.
Nance's beloved brother Frank suffered the terrible fate written about in Richard Flanagan's book The Narrow Road to the Deep North; he was captured by the Japanese, was slave labor on the railroad the Japanese tried to build in Thailand and died of starvation.
As the author noted, her mother's life was touched dramatically by the momentous events of twentieth century Australia. I expected to enjoy this book but the interesting twists and turns of Nance's life and the insightful reflections of this lively and intelligent woman made it a candidate for one of my favorites of the year.
Kate Grenville, One Life: My Mother's Story, Canongate Books, 2015, 272 pages (I read the kindle version). Available as a hardcover and kindle version through Amazon.