One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville

‘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.’

Those of us who are not related or part of Nance Gee (née Russell)’s circle of friends and acquaintances, would not have heard of her, except for the fact that she was Kate Grenville’s mother.  And Kate, using the fragments of memoir that Nance left behind, has given us Nance’s story. 

Nance Isobel Russell (1912-2002) was born into a rapidly changing world.  By the time she was thirty-three, she had lived through two world wars and the Great Depression.  She trained as a pharmacist, at a time when most women were confined (by custom or choice) to domestic duties. She married a man who saw himself (for a while at least) as a revolutionary.  She combined work as a pharmacist with her domestic responsibilities, and she helped build the family home.

‘When Nance talked about her life, she often started five generations before she was born.  The point of her story was that it was part of a bigger one.’

And Ms Grenville refers to Nance’s family tree and starts Nance’s story when she was very young.  It’s a life frequently dislocated as her restless mother, Dolly, has the family moving in search of opportunities.

I read this book, reminded of those women of the same generation in my own family.  I know that one of my grandmothers would have jumped at the opportunity for more education.  I remember her funnelling her restless energies into seemingly constant home redecoration, cooking, and sewing.  My other grandmother, older by almost twenty years, was more Victorian, seemingly more accepting of ‘a lady’s role’.

‘Sometimes in life you have to jump.’

I kept reading, wondering about Nance.  By the end of the book, while I felt that I had a good understanding of the issues with which Nance grappled, and the times in which she lived, I didn’t know the woman at all.  Which takes me to Ms Grenville’s statement:

‘Writing about a real person, especially your mother, is difficult.’

Exceedingly difficult, almost impossible.  Yes, a daughter has a view of a mother, but the other aspects of her life as a woman?  I get a sense of some of the difficulties Nance faced (such as what a difficult mother Dolly must have been) but not really of her feelings.  And yet, I am glad I read this book.  It’s a reminder of life during a tumultuous period of history, a reminder that there are many different aspects to one person’s life, a tribute to a woman who did her best.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith