Nance was a week short of her sixth birthday when she and Frank were roused out of bed in the dark and lifted into the buggy, squashed in with bedding, the cooking pots rattling around in the back, and her mother shouting back towards the house: Goodbye, Rothsay, I hope I never see you again!
When Kate Grenville’s mother died she left behind many fragments of memoir. These were the starting point for One Life, the story of a woman whose life spanned a century of tumult and change. In many ways Nance’s story echoes that of many mothers and grandmothers, for whom the spectacular shifts of the twentieth century offered a path to new freedoms and choices. In other ways Nance was exceptional. In an era when women were expected to have no ambitions beyond the domestic, she ran successful businesses as a registered pharmacist, laid the bricks for the family home, and discovered her husband’s secret life as a revolutionary.
One Life is an act of great imaginative sympathy, a daughter’s intimate account of the patterns in her mother’s life. It is a deeply moving homage by one of Australia’s finest writers.
Kate Grenville is one of Australia's best-known authors. She's published eight books of fiction and four books about the writing process. Her best-known works are the international best-seller The Secret River, The Idea of Perfection, The Lieutenant and Lilian's Story (details about all Kate Grenville's books are elsewhere on this site). Her novels have won many awards both in Australia and the UK, several have been made into major feature films, and all have been translated into European and Asian languages.
Four and a half stars. Kate Grenville has not only written a lovely tribute to her mother, she has given us a picture of how society and the role of women have changed over the intervening years. This is so much more than a story about Nance Isobel Gee. It shows us once again why Kate Grenville is such an esteemed writer. There is nothing boring about the story of the beautiful prose that really makes the reader hear and see the scene being described. And it starts right from the beginning where she describes her grandmother’s scolding voice. ‘Always her voice high and angry, a piece of wire cutting through the room. The child’s own name came to be an accusation. Nance! Nance!' Or this evocative example just a couple of pages further on. ‘They woke to a day so hot and still the air was like something solid. All morning a cloud gathered on the horizon and by afternoon it filled the sky, dark with a dangerous green underbelly like a bruise. Then one great blast of wind, and the hail starting all at once, like someone spilling peas out of a colander.’ I could have plucked other examples from other pages. But that is enough, because I don’t want you to take my word for it, I want you to read the book. Enjoy the novel for the use of vivid language and description but also for the story of a woman who never had an easy life, who struggled to make her own choices which were not always those of society’s roles for women at the time. It gives a clear picture of a strong determined woman. It is a life filled with hardships and sadness , with thongs that didn’t always work out as she would have liked and yet it is also a story of joy and of a woman, who with all her achievements considered her children her ’jewels.’ A lovely book from one of our best writers, it is not one to read quickly but to linger over.
This is written in a simple yet elegant style that makes it a pleasure to read.
Nance Russell was a remarkable woman, making a life for herself in the early 20th century in Australia. Her accomplishments are all the more impressive to me because she received so little encouragement from her family and society. Her parents treated her like she didn't matter while she was growing up, then denied her the right to choose her own career. She made the very best of the career they chose for her, becoming a trailblazer by eventually opening her own pharmacy, something women just did not do back then. What really stood out to me was how she always found a way to maintain her optimism, even after finding she'd made a bad(ish) marriage to a sometimes hapless man. She was the one who had the determination and resourcefulness to make all the good things happen for their family when he was often ready to give up too easily.
There was one thing in this book that made me laugh myself silly when I read it, so I will share it:
When Nance and her husband began socializing with the Mad Half Mile people, a woman named Ria came up to introduce herself. She said, "I'm Ria. Not diarrhea, not gonorrhea, just Ria."
Thank you to my special faraway friend Leslie who sent me this book via an intermediary who lives a little closer to me.
Kate Grenville is one of Australia's best-known authors, most well known for her novel The Secret River. Enjoying biographies, I thought I would give this a try. It was just OK for me, so two stars. I will explain why.
Kate writes about her mother, Nance (1912-2006). Actually the book only covers her first 40 years, up to the birth of her last child, the author. The second half of her life is only rapidly summarized in an epilogue, and it is worthy to note that important life changing events occur in these latter years. You get only half of the story. The book draws Nance's youth, her parents’ relationship and her own difficult marriage. You view Australian history through the life of one woman. For me, sseing the Depression and WW2 in Australia was the most interesting part of the whole book. The main focus is however Nance’s personal struggle to become a pharmacist.
Australia in 1912 was only one of the two nations in the world, New Zealand being the other, where women could vote! And yet, the central theme is to show how difficult it was for women to succeed in what remained a "man's world". Once her education was completed, her struggle continues. Jobs were not available to women, pay was discriminatingly low and childcare non-existent.
We are told the events in a matter of fact manner. Kate relates the events of her mother’s life using a third person narrative. She did that and that and that. Emotion is lacking. The reader observes more than experiences. Very little dialog. And whose thoughts are we getting? Nance’s or Kate’s view of her mother? Often Kate can only guess at what her mother was feeling and / or thinking. What surprised me was that my own experiences with discriminatory job opportunities and pay didn’t make me empathize more with Nance. I should care more, and yet I don’t. The telling is cold. It is strange that Kate doesn’t refer to her mother as Mom. She is simply Nance, and Nance speaks of her parents by their given names too. That the words mom and dad are rarely used creates a distance, an aloofness that is disturbing.
The author narrates the audiobook. It is a bit too fast. The Australian dialect is not terribly pronounced, but words are used which only an Australian will understand. These words are never explained.
No, I neither got a complete biography nor insight into Nance’s inner most thoughts. Her daughter, if anyone, ought to have been able to give me that. Quite simply, the book left me unmoved.
“It was different for Nance. She wasn’t dependent on a man. In fact, she thought that might be part of the problem. She’d been running her own life for so long, she was used to shaping things as she wanted…….She was like those girls who learned to dance with other girls, taking turns to be the man. They never got the hang of following, once they knew what it was like to lead.”
One Life is a biography of Nance Isobel Gee, written by her daughter, popular Australian author, Kate Grenville. Nance was born in 1912. Against the odds for a woman of her humble background, Nance attended Sydney University, became a registered pharmacist and owned her own pharmacy. But this simplistic summation of her life is completely inadequate, for Nance did much, much more with her life. As Grenville relates the incidents and events that punctuated Nance’s life, she takes the reader back to another era, one on the cusp of major change. Schooling, work, war, sexual discrimination, motherhood, political affiliations and even building a house feature in this interesting and entertaining memoir: “Why shouldn’t a woman lay bricks? The world would never change if someone wasn’t prepared to be the first.”
While this may be a memoir, Grenville still manages to treat the reader to some wonderfully evocative prose: “They woke to a day so hot and still the air was like something solid. All morning a cloud gathered on the horizon and by afternoon it filled the sky, dark with a dangerous green underbelly like a bruise. Then one great blast of wind, and the hail starting all at once, like someone spilling peas out of a colander” is just one example. Many of the images on the twenty-four pages of photographs will strike a chord with readers of a certain vintage, who may well have similar photographs of their own family.
Grenville explains: “Her story is unusual in some ways, but in other ways it’s the archetypal twentieth-century story of the coming of a new world of choices and self-determination” Those who knew her have described Nance Gee as a remarkable woman: this is a description which Grenville’s biography proves is certainly very apt. Once again, Grenville treats her readers to a brilliant read.
Nance Russell was a woman ahead of her time. She definitely stretched society's boundaries of what a woman's role should be. I so enjoyed reading Grenville's tribute to her Mother for that is what it is. Again another example of an ordinary person living an extraordinary life. The themes here of joy, heartache, lost opportunities, sacrifices are themes we can all relate to. Reading this I had to keep reminding myself that it was Grenville's own parents, her own family she was writing about. She did it so well and so objectively. Thank you to my GR friend Marianne for bringing this one to my attention. I'm so glad I didn't miss out on reading it.
Australian author Kate Grenville writes about her mother. After her mother died, the author discovered fragments of her memoir from which she wrote this book.
Nance was not someone a biographer or a historian would be interested in but her life reflects a period when Australia and New Zealand were the only two countries in the world where women could vote, women's salary was half that of men's, there was no organised child care and only form of contraception was abstinence.
Despite all odds, Nance managed to become a qualified pharmacist and also own a business. Not only that, in her fifties, Nance went to Sorbonne University in Paris and later became a teacher.
This book shows the extraordinary strength of Nancy Gee.
4.5 stars. A lovely biography of the author's mother, telling the story of an amazing woman who lived a remarkable but unheralded life. Grenville is, as always, fluent and easy to read - a writer who doesn't need showy sentences to demonstrate her gifts. The story is told with love and honesty and, alongside its obvious topic, unpacks the dreadful challenges put in front of women throughout the twentieth century.
‘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.
This is the story of Australian author Kate Grenville’s mother, Nance’s life. Like many people at that time, Nance had a difficult childhood and this continued into her adult years, working in a job she didn’t really like and married to a man she didn’t love and who didn’t love her.
I admired her courage greatly - she worked in pharmacy at a time when it was unusual for women to work as pharmacists, she returned to pharmacy work periodically after having children which was even more unusual and she even started her own pharmacies which was unheard of for women.
Kate Grenville told her mother’s story well - which you would expect from an author, however it doesn’t necessarily follow that just because someone can write fiction well that they will write good non-fiction. But Nance’s story was well-written by her daughter. The only thing I thought was a little strange was that about 9/10 of the book took place before Kate’s birth, and then she glossed over the rest of her mother’s life, but perhaps she felt that by that stage, she’d covered the most important points and anything more was saying the same thing over again…
I read this as an e-book which happily also contained the photos published in the hard-copy book - and I do like photos in memoirs or biographies - it makes it easier to picture life at that time and to picture the people involved living life. I’m giving it 3.5 stars.
In this excellently written memoir of her mother, Kate Grenville does more than narrate eloquently and sympathetically the story of one woman’s life. She also gives the reader a vivid portrait of a time and place in Australia’s history that really brings it to life. Nance was born in 1912 and didn’t die until 2002 so her life spans a tumultuous and fast-changing century. She was a quiet but determined young woman who managed to not only build a home and family but to also forge a professional life for herself as a pharmacist at a time when women didn’t normally work outside the home. She came from humble origins but knew there was more to life than this background suggested was in store for her – and she knew that she was clever enough to step outside the boundaries of a conventional existence. Her story represents the stories of millions of other women and the fragments of memoir she left plus some tapes tells us she wanted that story told. And this her daughter has done in her usual inimitable clear and lucid prose that is as always a joy to read.
Added since my original review: Having read a few other ambivalent reviews, I now feel less apologetic about not being in love with this book. Because of Kate Grenville's status in Australian literature AND the many glowing reviews, I was worried that I might have missed something. However, I now know that I'm not alone in feeling that there was an emotional coldness to the way the story was told -- a coldness that was exacerbated by Kate G's brisk reading of the audio book version.
I'm with @Chrissie, @AlisonCashew and @CaroleHazel on this one, and completely agree with @Elisabeth's observation: "It felt stiff stylistically and like an unimaginative child telling a story. I am sure that was part of the difficult negotiation that came from working with her mother's journals and not wanting to overstep and erase. Still, on a writing level it didn't work for me." I wonder if Grenville felt she was honouring her mother (and her uncompleted memoir) -- and giving her "her own voice" --- more by sticking so closely to the content and perhaps style of her mother's draft memoirs. I can understand that position, but still think it could have been a much more engaging and richer story for a bit of authorial/editorial/daughterly intervention.
Having said that, I also agree with @Elisabeth that it was worth reading because of what we learn about the era that Nance grew up in and how unusual her experience was for those times.
* * Original Review * * Two and a half stars, really. An interesting story written by an established author based on material left by her mother.
I love memoir in general and Australian memoir covering the post-war period, so this book is right up my alley, so I enjoyed this book but in some ways it lacked something. Not sure what yet. I think I need to read this book in print before I pass further judgement. I find Audio books really convenient and entertaining, and also a good guide to assessing whether I want to put the time and energy into reading the print version but to be surer of my opinion on books I may be ambivalent about, I need to read the printed or e-book version ...
This was a Bookclub book; I was very interested to read it, the subject matter intrigued me. But I found the writing lacked emotion & feeling for the characters, who in fact seemed very one dimensional, in spite of the fact that they are related to the author. The author states at the beginning that it was as a result of reading through ner mother's personal papers that she decided to tell her story. The problem with this seems to be that, as a result, we have a chronology but not a full story. However, this does reveal the struggle of a very clever & determined woman who succeeded in not only qualifying as a pharmacist but in owning her own businesses at a time when few were able to achieve that. It could have been written as another 'Angela's Ashes' emotional roller coaster, & I am very glad that it was not. But the cold relating of facts did nothing to engage my interest. 2☆s just for the writing.
A lovely tribute to a remarkable woman, One Life: My Mother's Story not only gives us a fascinating glimpse of an Australia so different from today, it's a beautifully written book about Nance herself. Her strength, kindness and love of learning shine through all the difficulties of her life and I found myself wishing I could have actually met her. I'm sure I'll read this book again; both Nance and her daughter Kate are truly inspirational.
What a life! Kate Grenville's memoir chronicles the extraordinary near-century her mother forged. This book is a reminder that we must be grateful for the opportunities that we talk for granted and which past generations fought for. And as usual, Kate Grenville involves readers in the journey.
A fascinating account of a woman's life told by her daughter which captures the frustrations and challenges faced by my own mother's generation. I was disappointed that it ended part way through her life and without giving us any idea of how she resolved her unsatisfactory marriage.
I'm writing this while about 2/3rds of the way through the audiobook. Before I say anything else about it I want to emphasise that I'm really enjoying the way this book is gently guiding me through its answer to the question: what makes us who we are? It's truly incredible to witness the societal changes that this one life lives through. And this one life has many experiences that provide a platform for exploring these changes intimately and in ways I'd never considered before. For example the repeating influence of Nance's own mother and father on the way she lived and the choices she made. I'm not sure if the criticisms I have are about the book itself or the experience of listening to it read by the author. When I saw the audiobook was narrated by Kate Grenville I was delighted, assuming there'd be some kind of mystical insights - an extra layer of nuance - revealed in the author's tone of voice. But hearing Kate narrate makes me appreciate the specialised acting skills that have made other audiobooks come alive in ways this one does not. So I can't tell if it's the writing out the narrating which makes it seem a little boring, or even a tiny bit forced or contrived in occasional spots. I think it must be the narrating - I can hear passages that make me want to reverse and listen again, and I think I'd notice more of them if the narration style could draw my attention to them a bit more gently and confidently. Not that the narration is bad, I think it just means I'm not appreciating the subtleties as much as I would otherwise. I wonder if it might have been better to have the chance to hear Kate narrate the prologue and an actor the rest of the book? But much more importantly, I am glad to have read/heard this book. It feels like a precious opportunity to have heard the story of my own grandparents, even though their lives were different to Nance's in many ways, and this is a very good thing.
I really enjoyed the reflectiveness in the postscript, especially these gems: "What other people did was up to them. Your job was to live - as richly and honestly as you could - your one life." "Thinking about your mother as a woman, with a private inner life, is daunting. It can feel as if you shouldn't go there."
Written from fragments of memoir and some recorded interviews, Kate Grenville’s book outlines the event’s of her mother, Nance Russell’s life. It follows Nance from her birth in 1912 through childhood days growing up days, across the space of two world wars and the Great Depression and into the new millennium when she passed away in 2002.
This book is an intimate portrait of the life of Nance who was typical of her time in many ways and ahead of her time in others. Like many women, family came first for Nance. She craved her family through her childhood and early adult life as she made her way through an education and training that took her away from home. Unlike many women of the time, Nance earned a qualification as a pharmacist and became an independent career woman. This too would take her from her young family at times when she herself had children. This is a terrific story of a woman that many of us can identify with despite the different times and life opportunities because we feel that dual pull of family and career, the particular joys and turmoils of relationships and the balance between looking after others yet sticking up for yourself at the same time. This is articulated in Nance’s wonderings:
“Yes, she wanted to meet someone, get married, have children. She wanted to be happy. But she knew now that she wanted something else as well.”
I found the book to be a beautifully told story that read like a novel. I was completely caught up in Nance’s story and particularly the struggles she felt within relationships. I would highly recommend this book to any working woman in Australia.
This was a marvellous book - almost 5 stars for me (I find it very hard to give anything 5 stars though!) From fragments of writing Grenville found after her mother's death she has composed a rich story of a strong, independent woman who struggled with combining a profession (pharmacy) and raising a family in the days when not many women undertook such a challenge.
Nance Gee was born in 1912 to parents who were rural working class. She survived a difficult and emotionally deprived childhood, in part because of her bond with her brother Frank and in part because of her own determination, liveliness and imagination. The writing about Nance's childhood and her early struggles as a pharmacy apprentice made for engrossing reading. The second half of the book remained fascinating but I was able to put it down from time to time (unlike the first half). I suspect Grenville may have found it a little more difficult to write about her father and her parents' complex and difficult marriage than she did about Nance's early life, when her gifts as a writer had freer rein. All in all though, a top read.
3 1/2 stars. Kate Grenville is one of my favourite authors so I was happy to read her latest book, based on the life her mother, taken from fragmentary notebooks her mother left behind. It’s more than a biography, really, more like a love letter to her mother as she comes to understand the forces, familial and societal, that were at work. Her mother had an unconventional and unhappy childhood, and then an unhappy marriage, but managed to make a success of her life in spite of that.
In her prologue, Grenville wrote something that really resonated with me. She observed that history is usually written from the point of view of the wealthy and noble-born, and that’s why her mother’s story is important and matters. I realized that’s why I enjoy historical fiction so much, when a talented writer can conjure up stories of bygone eras, anywhere in the world, about the struggles and triumphs of the common (wo)man.
If I have one criticism it’s the placement of the photos. In the edition that I read several plot points were revealed because photos were placed before the narrative, which spoiled it a bit.
So how to describe this book without devolving into a slew of Personal Issues that had me sobbing so hard at points in the book that I had to set it aside and just cry from the relief of knowing that someone, somewhere, experienced the same pain and came out intact and even, dare I say it, happy?
Anyway, terrific biography of an astounding woman. The value placed on the maternal instinct and how it matters just as much to a woman's sense of self and personal fulfillment as outside work, and on crafting the best life possible even when circumstances work against you, and of the role of literature and art in giving life meaning, really resounded in me, as did the value of childcare that was loving and nurturing without being prohibitively expensive. When I first received this book as a gift from darling B, I didn't know what it had to do with me that she thought I needed to read it so urgently: it's nice to know that she still understands me through time and distance. Gorgeously written, One Life is a fitting tribute to someone who loved and was loved, fully and thoughtfully.
This was a wonderful not-long-enough book about Kate's mother Nance. It was affectionate, interesting, and beautifully written. It showed so clearly how difficult life was for smart women who wanted more out of life than staying at home raising children. Nance and indeed her fearsome mother Dolly were intelligent women caught in the narrowness of Australia in the twenties, thirties, and forties. Dolly didn't manage to break free, and Nance almost didn't manage it. She did become a pharmacist, and even started her own business. There were such parallels in our lives. I now live about ten minutes' walk from the pharmacy in Enmore where Nance first worked. Imagine my surprise when Nance and her not-very-satisfactory husband Ken moved to Mona Vale, to the very street where I grew up. Nance even had a brother Frank, as did my mother, who was captured by the Japanese and died a POW. As did my own Uncle Frank. Pictured was one of the same postcards he sent home. It was wonderful to read of the early days of my suburb, when the milk was delivered by a horse and cart.
Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s best known contemporary writers, and is one of that small band to have succeeded both critically and commercially. Most know her for The secret river, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize among other awards. [...]
Grenville’s mother, Nance, was born in 1912, and died in 2002. Sorting through her mother’s papers later, Grenville discovered multiple notebooks containing her mother’s attempts to write her story. Nance apparently tried different ways of writing it – including, Grenville quotes, trying “to write it backwards”. However, her attempts always petered out, never going past her early forties “perhaps because by then she felt less need to look back and try to understand”. And so, Grenville’s book sticks to that, stopping (except for a short postscript) when Nance was 38 and pregnant with Kate. Wah! How disappointing not to be able to read about Kate’s childhood! To see what I made of this book, please check my full review: https://whisperinggums.com/2015/09/09...
I read this because I had just finished The Secret River and was caught up in this family. I couldn't get Searching for the Secret River on Kindle so I choose this one. I really did enjoy reading about Nance's life, which was fascinating, but the prose style held me off. It felt stiff stylistically and like an unimaginative child telling a story. I am sure that was part of the difficult negotiation that came from working with her mother's journals and not wanting to overstep and erase. Still, on a writing level it didn't work for me. I did feel it was enriching to learn more about the times Nance lived in and to gradually appreciate how unusual she was. I am glad I read it.
I absolutely loved this account of a trailblazing woman, Nance, who knew her own mind, what she wanted, what she needed and what she could accept. She was a real inspiration, living through the depression and WWII, taking on a profession and working when women 'stayed at home' and making decisions for herself about the men in her life. Beautifully written, you feel a part of the adventures, trials and tribulations that were Nance's life.