"When a writer is born into a family," said the Baltic-born poet Czeslaw Milosz, "the family is finished." Kate Grenville, the Australian-born author, hesitated to write a biography of her mother Nance Russell, who died in 2002, for fear of disturbing a private inner world and secrets. Nevertheless, she persisted in the task: the discovery of Nance's past was in some measure also the discovery of her own.
Based on fragments of memoir written by her mother and 10 hours of tape-recordings, One Life is a work of filial devotion that unfolds almost as a novel, with stretches of lively dialogue and descriptive passages. The stories Grenville has to tell about her mother may not always be an accurate reflection of what really happened (indeed they may be more remarkable for their inaccuracies than anything else), yet they absorb from start to finish.
With her working-class rural proprieties, Nance is not the sort of woman biographies are usually written about. Born in Australia in 1912, she worked as a professional pharmacist who struggled to do well by her formidable mother Dolly and bring up children of her own. All the same, her life spanned two world wars and in many ways mirrored her time; Grenville's biography skilfully places Nance within the larger frame of the 20th century.
Nance's far-distant ancestors, typically, were convicts sent out to Australia on prison ships. Her great-great-grandfather, Simon Wiseman, had been transported to New South Wales in 1806 for stealing timber while working as a Thames lighterman. Something of his tough, rebellious hide might have rubbed off on Nance, an "energetic, loving, bossy and sometimes embarrassing" mother to Kate.
In April 1944, Nance's brother Frank died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. His death devastated Nance: "She didn't want to eat, her clothes hung on her and her face in the mirror was gaunt." She tried to forget what had happened because something forgotten no longer has the power to hurt. Nevertheless, spurred on by her brother's death, Nance was determined to succeed as a professional pharmacist. In 1930, when she began her training, pharmacy was a rare profession in Australia in that women were equal to men. Yet Nance found it increasingly hard to reconcile life as a businesswoman with motherhood. One Life ends with Kate's birth in 1950.
Exquisitely written, this is no hurtful exercise in family exposure, but a tender reconstruction of a woman's exemplary life.