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Kate Grenville Biography

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Nationality: Australian. Born: Kate Gee in Sydney, Australia, 1950. Education: University of Sydney, B.A. 1972; University of Colorado, M.A. 1982. Career: Arts administrator, Australia Council, Sydney, 1973-74; documentary film production assistant, Film Australia, Sydney; freelance film editor and writer, London, 1974-80; subtitle editor, Multicultural TV, Sydney, 1983-85; instructor in writing, University of Sydney. Awards: Fellowship (International Association of University Women), 1981; Australian/Vogel award, 1984; writer's fellowship (Australia Council), 1985. Agent: C. Lurie, 26 Yarraford Avenue, Alphington, Victoria 3067, Australia.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Lilian's Story. North Sydney, Australia, Allen & Unwin, 1984; NewYork, Viking, 1986.

Dreamhouse. University of Queensland Press, 1986; New York, Viking, 1987.

Joan Makes History. Latham, New York, British American Publishers, 1988.

Dark Places. London, Picador, 1994; published as Albion's Story. New York, Harcourt, 1994.

The Idea of Perfection. South Melbourne, Picador, 1999.

Short Stories

Bearded Ladies. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia, University ofQueensland Press, 1984.

Other

The Writing Book: A Workbook for Fiction Writers. North Sydney, Australia, Allen & Unwin (Australia), 1990.

Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written (with SueWoolfe). North Sydney, Australia, Allen & Unwin, 1993.

* * *

Kate Grenville first came to prominence when her novel Lilian's Story won the 1984 Australian/Vogel award for the best manuscript by an unpublished writer under the age of thirty-five. By the time it appeared, however, she was already the author of a collection of short stories, Bearded Ladies. The title of the collection is ambiguous. The suggestion of sexual ambiguity is present in some of the stories. In another sense, though, the various but similar young protagonists of these stories are "bearded" by men, subjected to male demands, deprived of the opportunity to grow into selfhood; strongly feminist themes run through all Grenville's work. Many of them have difficulty establishing worthwhile relationships with men or breaking with failed ones. The writing is carefully flat and laconic, the point of view almost always that of a dispassionate observer, even when the observer is also the protagonist.

The eponymous Lilian in Grenville's very well-received first novel goes further than the collection of bearded ladies and breaks free entirely from the conventional demands of society. Based loosely on the life of an eccentric, well-known Sydney woman named Bea Miles (it was originally called Bea's Story) the novel tells the story of Lilian Singer, a grossly fat, engagingly individualistic woman who decides that she will follow her own path wherever it takes her and will not be bound by the conventions of society. She struggles early to escape the two constrictions that bind her—being ugly and, worse still, being a girl, a misfortune that has dogged her literally since the day of her birth. After a period in an asylum, her eccentricity blossoms; she harasses strangers with long recitations of Shakespeare for which she demands payment, boards trains and refuses to buy a ticket, steps into taxis with strangers and exuberantly embarrasses them. But for all its racy energy and strikingly original characterization, the claims Grenville makes for her protagonist—that she has been forced into eccentricity by a patriarchal society and that her eccentricity is in any case a form of greatness—remain arguable.

Dreamhouse sprang from the final, novella-length story "Country Pleasures" in Bearded Ladies and is a blackly satiric comedy about an English couple in Italy and a series of people they encounter who all turn out to be having unorthodox or unnatural affairs. As the novel opens, "Rennie" Dufrey and his beautiful ex-secretary wife Louise are driving towards a house in Tuscany that has been lent to him by his academic mentor Daniel. The house proves to be derelict, with mice, spiders, and even a snake in occupancy. Daniel's children, Hugo and Viola, are unfriendly and behave strangely, and before long Louise begins to uncover a number of curious sexual liaisons. The novel is narrated by Louise in a style that is peculiarly factual, dispassionate, written almost like a report. She herself is an almost disembodied presence, reacting to events in only a muted way. Nevertheless, Grenville piles on the horrors lavishly. Spiders hang over the uncomfortable beds the characters sleep in. Hugo collects and stuffs birds; his cruelties are documented in detail. Loads of revulsion are invested in even the most banal of actions. At the end, Louise's decision to leave her husband seems common-sensed and far from being as momentous as the author seems to think.

Joan Makes History was written in response to a commission from the Bicentennial Authority to write a book that was relevant to the celebration of the white occupation of Australia. It is quite ingeniously conceived. A dozen scenes headed "JOAN" describe the life of a very ordinary woman, Joan Radulesco. Although fiercely conscious of her aspirations to greatness she lives an uneventful life except for leaving her husband and later returning. She accomplishes nothing but eventually realizes that in simply living her own life she is part of history. Against this banal, contemporary Joan there is juxtaposed another historical Joan who is seen in eleven key episodes of Australian history. This Joan can be anyone, go anywhere, she wants to. When Captain Cook claims Australia for the British in the Endeavour in 1770 she is on board as his wife, contemptuous of the passes the foppish Joseph Banks is making at her. She is present at the opening of Parliament in 1901; as an Aboriginal girl she meets the explorer Flinders when he encounters Aborigines for the first time.

Each episode stands in some kind of relationship to the life of the contemporary Joan. For instance, the historical Joan is Mrs. Cook; the contemporary one goes with her husband and child to visit Cook's Cottage. Joan's leaving her husband Duncan and wandering over Australia is paralleled by a black Joan leaving her similarly stolid Warra, and so on. One of Grenville's keenest ambitions is to speak for the silent in Australian history, especially women and Aboriginal people.

Dark Places takes us back to the territory of Lilian's Story and includes many of the same incidents, but this time presented from the viewpoint of Lilian's father, Albion Gidley Singer, whose first person narrative guides the novel. This is both its strength and limitation. To sustain the narrative voice of Singer is an impressive feat but also a somewhat wearying one. Long before the end of the novel we have come to know as much as we need to about his real evil, and although Grenville offers occasional glimpses of the possibility of self-knowledge, it is clear that he will not change radically. He is, in his own words, "an embattled and lonely atom" whose traditional incapacities are established early, though in sparklingly incisive prose. His love of facts, the extinction of feeling and the reduction of all human complexity to things measurable and quantifiable become a prevailing and blackly comic theme in the novel. Added to this is an extraordinarily intense misogyny. Albion is a man brought up to hate and fear women as the mysterious Other. All the sexual encounters in the novel are filled with a sense of abhorrence of the female body and reduced to financial transactions, or else become violent fantasies in which women's protests at his mistreatment of them are totally disbelieved. The pattern emerges in his frequent rapings of his wife and finally in the rape of his daughter. It comes as no surprise that Albion displays traits of a covert homosexual as well. The problem is not one of making Singer believable but of making him dramatically interesting. He is an essentially static character. The only changes that take place in him are cosmetic; they relate only to the appearance of the self that he constructs and then presents to the world.

Kate Grenville's most recent novel, The Idea of Perfection, is a patient, affectionate study of an unlikely romance between a bridge engineer and a quilt maker. Both of them are, on the surface, dysfunctional people. Douglas Cheeseman is the son of a man who died winning the VC. Harley Savage is the only apparently untalented member of a family of gifted artists. Cheeseman's wife left him out of boredom. Harley has been married unsuccessfully three times. He suffers from vertigo; she has had a heart attack. Both are physically unattractive. The couple meet when Cheeseman is assigned to the tiny town of Karakarook to decide whether a scenic bridge needs replacing. Although he soon works out a win-win situation he is too uncomfortable to actually put it to his boss. But the ending of the novel has them getting together as Cheeseman finally asserts himself and wins the hand of his lover. Juxtaposed against these are Felicity Porcelline and her banker husband. Felicity spends a lifetime denying her own needs and desires, including the lust she feels for the local Chinese butcher Freddy Chang. She is obsessed with her appearance and every gesture, every pose, is designed to enhance her skin. Even smiling has to be rationed.

Grenville takes a perhaps excessive time to tease these themes out. The lack of composure, the diffident uncertainty of Harley and especially Cheeseman, are stressed repeatedly, as are Felicity's prurience and superficiality. So are the contrasts between the two women. Harley is the embodiment of unpretentious naturalness. In contrast, Felicity rations her feelings and expression of them. The portrait of her borders on caricature if it hasn't already gone past it, though Grenville does offer her one momentary insight into her own phoniness—"Just for one puncturing moment she saw herself: a cruel smiling child"—before she draws the curtain on her feelings again.

Grenville's The Writing Book, subtitled "A Workbook for Fiction Writers," is exceptionally useful and interesting, not least because it illuminates many of her own practices as a writer.

—Laurie Clancy

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