2018, 352 p.
I’ll be honest: I don’t really like the ‘parental memoir’ books, even though I seem to keep reading them. You know the ones I mean, where a child (often already an established writer) writes the biography of one of their parents, interweaving it with their own memoir and ‘journey’ in trying to understand their parent/s. I’ve read my share of them, historian Jim Davidson writing about his father; Biff Ward writing about her historian father and his wife; Catherine de Saint Phalle writing about her Parisian parents Poum and Alexandre; Marie Munkara writing from the point of view of a member of the Stolen Generations re-discovering her family; Anne Summers writing about her mother and a painting, and Magda Szubanski writing about her family and coming out.
That’s a lot of books for a genre that I’ve said I don’t like. I am uncomfortable with the stripping-bare of a parent who cannot defend their actions, and I dislike the sense of long-held grievance that often permeates a child’s judgement of their parent, no mater how long ago these childhood events occurred.
So why, then, did I read this ‘parental memoir’? I think it’s probably because I admire Nadia Wheatley as a biographer through her excellent biography of Charmian Clift The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift and I was interested to see how a professional biographer/historian deals with the problem of writing a hybrid biography/memoir. [It was this methodological curiosity that led me to read Davidson and Summers, and will probably lead me to Jill Roe and Brenda Niall one day.] More immediately, it was as a response to reading excellent reviews by Jonathan Shaw and Sue at Whispering Gums.
The title of Wheatley’s book Her Mother’s Daughter is an act of claiming back her relationship with her mother. She was told by family that because she was only nine when her mother died, she couldn’t possibly remember her. Besides, she was told, her mother would have hated her Leftist policies. It was in reconstructing her mother’s life as an adult, from what people told her about her mother, and drawing on her own memories written at the time of her mother’s death in a valiant attempt to stop them dissipating (surely the act of a future writer and biographer!) that she realized that her mother would not have rejected her because of her politics and that she was, indeed, more of her mother’s daughter than her wider family recognized. The choice of title is also an act of distancing herself from her father, to whom she was often likened, and with whom she had a fearful, strained relationship. His behaviour, as her research proved, was even darker than she realized as a child.
The book is written in four parts. The first section ‘Neen’ tells of the early life of Wheatley’s mother Nina Whatley, born in 1906 in northern NSW, whose own mother died while Nina was young. Her life seemed destined to end in nursing her much-loved elderly father and her less-loved stepmother, but World War II was her escape, when she enrolled as a nurse and worked with the 6th A.G.H. in Greece and Palestine. After the war she worked in refugee camps with Displaced Persons with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, taking up a position of responsibility that saw her nicknamed “Miss UNRRA”.
It was in these camps that she met the English doctor, Dr (John) Norman Wheatley, as described in Part II ‘Nina and John’. Dr Wheatley was married (although separated) at the time, and unknown to Nina he had a darker side that manifested itself through his alter ego ‘Mr Black’, a legal identity that he used for gambling, dodgy enterprises, affairs. Already here as a reader you sense the perils for Nina in finally marrying Dr Wheatley. Their affair, while it was clandestine and without responsibilities, filled their weekends with liaisons, parties and travel. When Neen unexpectedly fell pregnant, he did not welcome the child, and Neen returned home to Australia to have her child.
Part III ‘Nina, John and Nadia’ is the longest section of the book, and it conveys well the anxiety evoked in this little girl by her father’s capricious, heedless and manipulative behaviour. They shift from one house to another as her father’s enterprises turn sour. Her sardonic father plays mind-games with both mother and daughter, with his menacing repetitions “do you understand?” when telling or showing Nadia aberrant anecdotes and images. When Neen complains of chest pain, he ignores her, dismissing the pain as psychosomatic, a diagnosis too easily conveyed and shared amongst the male-dominated psychiatric fraternity. It was a dismissal that probably robbed Neen of years of health.
In the final Part IV, after Neen’s death, Nadia goes into the care of a school friend’s family; a paid arrangement she later learns, and one where she is vulnerable. The relationship with her father, already brittle, petered out.
Looking over this summary, there’s not a lot of joy here. Disappointments and betrayals, when they occur, seem inevitable. Yet, the book does not have the howl of grievance that too many parental memoirs have, perhaps because Wheatley’s intent is to recover her mother in order to identify with her, instead of to judge. The judgement is directed towards her father instead.
There is a narrative distance between Wheatley the author and Wheatley the character, and I think it is this detachment and – is ‘professionalism’ the word?- that makes this book a work of biographical reconstruction as much as memoir. Most of it is written in the third person, but occasionally Nadia Wheatley the adult biographer breaks into the narrative, commenting on information that she has uncovered, responding with scepticism, regret or shame (as when she realizes that Neen’s inheritance of the family home had caused such resentment in the family). Wheatley has brought her biographer’s eye to her own family, contextualizing it within the mores and expectations of the time, filling in background information about the refugee schemes after WWII and psychiatric medicine during the 1950s, particularly in relation to women. She is explicit about her sources – her mother’s letters (often quoted verbatim), interviews and conversations with family members, discussions with people who knew Neen – as a way of testing her own reality and memory against those of other people. Although the structure of the book is mainly chronological, it skips back and forth, shifting between third and first person. It is a deft book, written with confidence. Its emotional tone is dispassionate, and you, as a reader, do the emotional work of being enraged at people’s self-centredness, fearful of what seems inevitable, and hollowed by grief and unfairness. That Wheatley has brought you to this place is a testament to her skill as a writer.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book
My rating: 9/10
I have included this on the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge database