By Emma Sartori
If there’s one thing that became abundantly clear throughout the Kate Grenville In Conversation session, it’s that she comes from a line of remarkable women.
Her grandmother’s life in the harsh, late 1800s is the stuff stories spring from, while her mother, Nance, survived a time of tumultuous change in the 20th century and passed those stories down to her children.
In a departure from her usual fiction, Grenville delved further into the stories her mother told her and the end result is the memoir, One Life: My Mother’s Story.
Nance was, by all accounts, a woman marked by rejection and desolation who bore a striking resilience and determination to break the common thread of unhappiness weaving its way through her family, all amid a change in the fabric of society as women of her generation were offered more freedom and opportunities than ever before.
“My mother was born in 1912 and lived for 90 years, so what she saw over the course of the 20th century was wave after wave of incredible change, particularly for women, which opened up opportunities all of which she grabbed with both hands,” Grenville told the audience.
“All my life she’d been telling me stories about our ancestors, including our convict ancestor on who The Secret River was based, but also about her own young life and all that involved.
“The reason why she kept telling us those stories, I think, was that she knew that she was representative of a generation of women for who life was different than it had been from every other generation of women on the planet.”
There is nothing quite like a mother’s love and the impact of Grenville’s mother, and to an extent her grandmother, on her is obvious. She speaks very matter-of-factly about the shortcomings of the adult figures in her life, of her grandmother’s frustrations at being blocked at every turn, of the loveless childhood experienced by her mother, of affairs, conspiracies and secrets uncovered.
She holds no illusions about the line of women she comes from and chooses to accept their imperfections, to understand the hardships experienced instead of judging. In that way, Grenville turns the tables on her mother, proving a child’s love can be just as unconditional.
“Mum never had any secrets … I think she made sure that there were no skeletons for me to be shocked by after she died, or if there were she’s hidden them so effectively that I haven’t been able to find them,” Grenville said with a smile.
The tables continued to turn on the Grenville women as the award-winning author revealed that she and her brothers were the catalyst for change for Nance.
“She said to me, ‘I come from a long line of unhappy parents producing unhappy and unsettled children,’ and she would say, ‘I am determined to break that cycle. I’m going to be the generation where, OK, I might not be happy but I’m not going to pass that unhappiness on to you children’,” Grenville said.
“She was an incredibly loving mother and she somehow managed to absorb into herself like a sponge all the unhappiness of the marriage so that it didn’t infect me and my brothers.”
In all of her fiction there is something of Nance, Grenville admits. The root of Grenville’s love for reading and writing is most certainly traced back to Nance, who was saved from a particularly dark period in her life by the words of poet John Keats.
“I grew up almost slightly embarrassed by the intensity of my mother’s love of literature, but it certainly rubbed off on me,” Grenville said. “When I became a writer I think mum was as surprised as I was.
“I certainly think I owe her my love of writing.”
Grenville, who exudes the warmth, inner strength and intelligence she describes her mother as having, brings everything full circle by immortalising Nance’s history in One Life: My Mother’s Story and discussing it with obvious pride and love. The memoir is a sort of proof that the cycle of unhappiness has indeed been broken and the stories shared highlight just how fortunate women in the 21st century are.
“I wanted to tell my mother’s story as she would clearly want it to be told,” Grenville said.
“She was remarkable.”
Emma Sartori is an Australian writer continually beating away inner demons with a pen. Follow her on twitter on @EmzSartori.