2008, 224 p.
When an writer dies, I often make a point of reading one of their books. It’s an act of tribute, I suppose, even though the reality is that all books live on beyond their authors eventually. Although the book has to stand on its own merits, the recent death of the author probably does affect the way I read it. With an older author I read the book as the affirmation of a career, and with a younger writer it’s with a sense of lost opportunities and books not written.
This is particularly the case when the book is a beautifully crafted memoir, as Georgia Blain’s Births Deaths Marriages most surely is. As the daughter of the writer Anne Deveson, Georgia Blain died recently with a brain tumour at the age of 51, one day before her mother also died after many years living with dementia. In this series of autobiographical essays, we have met the whole family- mother, father, husband and daughter, and the overwhelming feeling that I am left with is: “I think I would have liked you”.
The book starts and finishes with a chapter titled “A Room of One’s Own”. In the opening chapter, Blain returns to her childhood home, now up for auction, and remembers her mother typewriting in the 1970s as her children waited resentfully in the doorway, for the tip-tap of the typewriter to finish. In the essay that closes the book “A Room of One’s Own II”, she is now the writer, jostling with her husband Andrew for space in the shed at the back of their ugly house to use as a workroom. The essays between these two bookends are arranged roughly chronologically, as she writes about her years in an ‘opportunity’ class for gifted students, travelling with her mother and brothers to Adelaide after her parents separate, losing her virginity, establishing a relationship with film-maker Andrew after other unsuccessful relationships, marriage counselling, having a child, buying a dog. Her description of her ambivalence about motherhood is one of the most honest and raw accounts that I have read. Her descriptions of place are almost cinematographic: you can feel the hot prickle of the Adelaide summer; smell the salty tang of Sydney beaches and the dust of Terowrie, a disintegrating outback town, seems to coat your skin. As with Helen Garner’s work in sketching both people and place, I liked the sharpness of her vision, as if she is looking through a window that is cleaner than the one I’m behind.
The book itself is not new: it was published nine years ago in 2008. Even though as the title suggests, the book is about relationships, it is also very much about the act of writing itself. In an interview with Sophie Cunningham in Meanjin in 2008, she explains that the book started as a Ph D and that several chapters had been published in a range of literary journals, each with different editors. At the time of writing it, she had already published four novels and she reflects on her decision to write from her own life:
There is a private space and a public space, and within each there are many layers. I wanted to hold the private up to the light, to look at it and put it out there on the table for public viewing, but I need to think carefully about how I wanted to do this. (p. 128)… I believed and still do, that if I wrote about my own life and lives of those I love, I had to tell the truth. But foolishly, I believed the truth lay only in the immediate. (p 130)
It’s an odd mixture of the very ordinary set alongside the particular circumstance of being the child of two journalists who had their own public personas, and as the sister of a brother whose schizophrenia was explored publicly in her mother’s own book Tell Me I’m Here. Most particularly, the essays are a conversation on paper with her parents as professionals. She listens, with embarrassment, to an old tape of an interview her father conducted with Germaine Greer and realizes how ineffectual he was as journalist. She describes her ambivalence over her mother’s writing about her brother, Jonathan, thereby making his story public property, in much the way that she has herself done in this book.
Indeed, much of the book is a dialogue with her mother as writer. After years of writing non-fiction, Anne Deveson tried to write a novel but was frustrated because it kept turning into autobiography or reportage. Blain, already a published novelist, decided to switch in the other direction:
We had switched places, my mother and I. And we looked at each other. Both mothers. Both writers. Both trying on each others shoes, taking a few steps back, eyes on our feet, before we glanced across, once again, curious as to how this had happened. (p 158)
Even though the chapters are self-contained, there is a real unity to the book, best captured by the circularity of the opening and closing chapters. She writes about the narrative problem of ‘finding’ the ending in a memoir, when life that still offered more. She found that she had reached the end of the book, almost without realizing it:
There was no need to search for it. It is right here where it had all looped back on itself, complete in this moment. Here is the place to stop, to pause before the next swoop of the arc continues following the path of all that has gone before, the same shape but a different line. (p. 163)
And a different line it certainly was to be, nine years later, even though she did not know that at the time. Last year Georgia Blain began contributing a column to the Saturday Paper, talking about the brain tumour and the world of illness that she had been plunged into. The columns stopped late in the year. Her friend, Charlotte Wood, wrote a beautiful tribute in the last edition for 2016. Yet in many ways and unconsciously at the time, Blain herself leaves us with her own words of comfort:
Because this is the place where I am, like my mother, writing about us. And I have so much more than I ever hoped for; I have love, work that I want to do, and a couple of rooms to move between each day.
My rating: 9/10
Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book.
I have linked this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017