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Some brief notes on Leaping into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears (Allen and Unwin, 2021), Bernadette Brennan’s excellent, fast paced biography of Australian writer Gillian Mears (1964-2017):

  • It’s been a long time since I read Mears’ novel The Grass Sister, and I had forgotten that it features a missing sister who disappeared by leaping into a waterfall. It makes the title even more appropriate and poignant. But I wonder if it should be singular? There’s a finality to leaping into a waterfall, and it’s the cause of her absence from the world. Titles are hard in biography; I actually felt Brennan explained Mears very well and though she was complicated, I’m not sure she was enigmatic. The ‘enigmatic’ subtitle also raises the question for me about how soon you can reuse an adjective in Australian biography, with Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin appearing in 2017. This is just me thinking aloud – I like the title as it is.
  • There’s a minefield around Mears’ death. With her MS worsening she chose euthanasia at a time when it was illegal. It’s a beautifully constructed death scene, a poignant build up of tension toward the inevitable. It also is careful to say Mears was alone and had no assistance. Quite possibly true – but in the case of such a recent death, the biographer could feel under a moral obligation to maintain that no-one was involved, as the police could get involved otherwise.
  • Brennan deals with the tension between theme and chronology by saving things up and dealing with them when she’s ready; we’ll learn about something which happened years earlier only now that it can be grouped with the main treatment of that theme. It’s a pretty good option that I sometimes took myself, although more often I would mention it in passing then pick it up again.
  • What incredible research – adept archival work across Mears’ massive archive, plus 65 interviews! The dedication of a true professional shines through. I think Brennan managed to make her interviewees speak insightfully and quite freely, when in other biographies oral sources seem vague to me. Ivor Indyk is one of Mears’ greatest supporters over many years; toward the end we read this sad sentence: ‘At the award ceremony Mears finally met Ivor Indyk. After all the years of correspondence … he felt somewhat dismissed.’ (250)
  • Following Mears, Brennan uses the metaphor of biography as archaeology in the introduction and it’s ripe for an extended exploration – ‘In sifting through that life and returning to sites of great significance, I am mindful of the damage that may be done by excavation. Certain sites, therefore, will remain only partially exposed.’ (p. xvi)