I’ve been travelling a lot for work lately so listened to One Life: My Mother’s Story as an audiobook narrated by Kate Grenville, the author, while driving through country Victoria. I have previously read other books by this well-known Australian author, including two of the The Secret River series.
One Life: My Mother’s Story is a biography of the author’s own mother, Nance Russell Gee, up until about the time she turned forty. The author wrote this book using bits and pieces of writing that she found amongst her mother’s things after her death, knowing that her mother had also dreamed of being a writer.
Nance was born in 1912. Nance’s mother Dolly, was a restless, unhappy woman, whose marriage did not bring out the best in her. Nance had a much-loved older brother, Frank and a younger brother, however she and her siblings were often separated as the children were sent to board in distant locations as her parents moved around NSW looking for business opportunities.
When she left school Nance was apprenticed to a pharmacist, which was most unusual for a girl at that time. Nance didn’t want this career and felt as if she was being deprived of her family, particularly after having been away at school for years, but due to the hard times the family were going through she had no choice but to take the job. At the end of her apprenticeship Nance was a fully registered pharmacist at a time when most women did not work outside of their home after marriage.
After marrying, Nance had no choice but to continue working. Her husband was a financially unsuccessful solicitor who was also a revolutionary. Nance didn’t agree with his political views and quickly realised she had made a mistake in marrying him, but stayed because she loved him. Eventually, they had three children together, the youngest being Kate, the author of this book.
Nance was clearly an extraordinary woman. Not only did she continue to work after her marriage but she eventually started two pharmacies of her own. Sadly, she had to sell both businesses as she was unable to have it all as she was also a mother who had to run the family home. Having a family and continuing to do paid work is still difficult for women now, despite the availability of childcare, flexible working arrangements and modern household equipment such as dishwashers and washing machines, and it was virtually impossible for Nance to manage then.
The story ends when Kate was born, although the author finished the book by saying her mother eventually gave up pharmacy work and did a university degree, then taught for many years. Nance learned to speak French and lived in France for a time, fulfilling lifelong dreams.
Sometimes the story ventured into territory which felt overly intimate for a daughter to know about her mother, although the author called her mother Nance throughout the story which added a degree of separation. The backdrop of the Depression and World War Two were fascinating. It was made clear that both Nance and Kate’s father were storytellers, so it is not surprising that Kate Grenville became a writer.
I enjoyed Kate Grenville’s narration very much. Her speaking style is subtle, which I think allowed me to visualise Nance and her family, friends and community better than had the story been told in a more flamboyant way.
Listening to a story turned out to be a much slower experience (six hours and thirteen minutes to be precise) than reading to myself which I believe allowed me to fully appreciate the story. The book was also perfectly suited to travelling along regional highways fringed by gum trees and looking out onto paddocks and bush.
One Life: My Mother’s Story is a lovely tribute to a brave, unconventional and extraordinary woman.