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One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville | Book Review

April 4, 2018

“After my mother died in 2002 it took me a few years to get out all the papers she’d left and look through them. I was afraid it would be a mournful thing to do, but the first exercise book I opened spoke to me as if she was beside me, the warmth and humour of her voice alive still …”


So begins Kate’s book, her mother’s story and the recording of her story rather than history.


While the book describes a personal story it also describes what life was and to a significant extent still is for women, irrespective of who they are or where they live.


This book was also personal for me as Kate’s mother, Nance was of the same era as my mother. They even died in the same year. Both were touched by the First World War, the Great Depression and the Second World War. One key difference was that my mother migrated from Scotland, though even then Nance’s descriptions of coming to the city after spending her life moving from one rural community to another was similar to migrating to an unknown country. The hardships, the compromises, the prejudices, the expectations and demands of others rang true.


The book is also about loss, the loss of independence, of loved ones, of oneself but also of finally being free to pursue your dreams. “Now, with old age and death around the corner, she wanted to discover the mighty works of understanding that lay locked behind other languages. She was looking for a way to find meaning. Not in God and the carrot-and-stick of the afterlife, but in grasping the hand of another spirit who’d travelled the same path. Death was still at the end of that path. But, through art, you died having had full consciousness of your life…. Of all the writers she studied, Proust spoke to her most personally. He was a dying man, racing against illness to get his great work done, because in the shadow cast by mortality he had to confront the biggest question of all, the same one she dimly grasped the night she decided not to step in front of the Enmore tram. His answer was that if life was the wound, art was its healer, because art was the wound shared.”


As Kate Grenville noted in the book, “writing about a real person, especially your own mother, is difficult. Unlike characters in fiction, real people’s motives are muddled and obscure, their personalities seem to shift from one day to another, and their lives are full of events that come out of nowhere. Thinking about your mother as a woman, with a private inner life, is daunting. It can feel as if you shouldn’t go there. Still, this book is my attempt to continue what our mother wanted to achieve … to tell her story and put it in its context of time and place.”


In the end I envied Kate Grenville because she had her mother’s voice on paper. For me I have it in my mother’s handwriting, her recipes, and her address book.


What this book reinforces is that you need to have “those” conversations with your mother, grandmother, aunt, great aunt while they are alive so that you can learn more about them as people, to understand how their life has influenced who you are today and especially because when they have gone, unless they have written their story, it will be too late.

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