One Life is Kate Grenville’s account of the life of Nance Gee, her mother. The project began when she found the fragments of her mother’s own attempts at autobiography and put them alongside the hours of interviews she recorded with her before she died in 2002. She ended up going far beyond these primary sources to write a book which would have wider appeal than the family. As I listened to the book, I found myself curious about the writing of it. I was grateful to find Grenville give this insight on her website:
There were several problems. One was the cautious biographical voice of the early drafts: writing full of things like “she probably thought” and “she must have felt”. In the absence of definite knowledge, a biographer is stuck with that caution, but it saps the energy of the writing and the vividness of the moments. Another problem was that in these drafts, two voices were competing to tell the story: Mum’s voice, quoted verbatim, and my own, filling in the gaps. …
The book that’s now between covers is my attempt to find a path between all these obstacles. My mother’s voice appears both nowhere and everywhere: the verbatim voice has gone but phrases and often whole sentences from her memoirs appear on every page, almost in every paragraph. Where it enriches the texture of her story, I’ve added material that I found in research. …
This book, then, isn’t a biography or a memoir. It isn’t history, nor is it fiction. It has elements of all of these without being any of them. Like most of the tales we tell ourselves and each other, it’s that compendious and loose-limbed thing: a story.
It is a biography, really, just one that has been fictionalised more than most, although “fictionalise” is a misleading word to use in this context. Not to alter the known facts, but to enrich them with the texture of scenes and states of mind and dialogue. There are probably a number of precedents, but the one I know of is Lily Chan’s fine “memoir” of her grandmother, Toyo (2012), which achieves something very similar.
One Life tells the first half of Nance’s life, following her from pub to pub across New South Wales with her unhappily married parents. There is a beautiful moment where she leaves her treasured pieces of broken china in between the rocks at one of the places, swearing she will go back one day to them, even though she doesn’t, and sometimes thinking of them hidden there. The dramas of her life are on a small scale, but are engrossing, as she tries to make more of her life than was expected of women in that time, becoming a pharmacist, and marrying a progressive man with interesting ideas but an emotional coldness. It finishes with the birth of Kate, summing up the last years in a postscript.
Grenville focused on those early years because they were the years her mother focused on in what she had written and talked about. This seems to be a pattern in many autobiographies, particularly old-fashioned ones – Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Child of the Hurricane (the text at the centre of my PhD) has only a brief summary chapter of her life after her marriage; A. B. Facey’s A Fortunate Life – from memory – sums up the second half of his life very quickly; A. J. Cronin’s Adventures in Two Worlds also. Considering biographies rather than autobiographies, Susan Tridgell wrote an essay (and later book) critiquing the way a focus on event-driven narratives means biographers are dismissive of their subject’s old age. (I could go on, and I do in my PhD.)
I’ve sometimes wondered if, approached in the right way by the right writer, almost anyone’s life could be made into an interesting biography. One Life at least proves that an unfamous life can certainly be made into one, capturing the significance and beauty of her hopes, joys, and sorrows. Nance, however, is no ordinary person; without being a fully-fledged radical, she resists the expectations and restraints placed on women in her time; she has a rich inner life.
I wasn’t expecting any connections to Katharine Susannah Prichard, but then suddenly in the 1940s, who should turn up but her one-time lover, Guido Baracchi, who influenced her communism? Nance’s husband was a Trotskyite for a time and moved in radical circles; Nance doesn’t trust him as a true communist because of the fine leather shoes he’s wearing. But she opens a pharmacy with the help of Baracchi’s wife. Connections like this are a serendipitous pleasure of life-writing.
The talking book version is read by Kate Grenville herself, which is most appropriate. This is a book which should have wide appeal, beyond even the many readers of Grenville’s literary fiction to anyone who wants to experience a life lived well but away from the headlines in a world now vanished, one closer to the sort of world most people born a century ago inhabited than that evoked in the biographies of the famous.