One Life: My Mother’s Story

Kate Grenville

One Life: My Mother's Story
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One Life: My Mother’s Story

Kate Grenville

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.


We already know that Grenville is one of Australia’s most-loved story tellers. We already know that each of her stories reflects upon Australia’s history and consciousness. One Life is no exception. In her introduction, Grenville says that this book, the story of her mother, is a story about the past, but it’s very much about the present too. Women today are still steering a course around the same puzzles: working out how to manage motherhood and a career, making and breaking relationships, and establishing the balance between looking after others and looking after themselves. Using found writings, fragments of conversations and photos, Grenville has pulled together the story of her mother’s life into a wonderful narrative of Australian history.

Born in 1912, Grenville’s mother trained as a pharmacist, married a solicitor who turned out to be a Trotskyite revolutionary, and twice started her own businesses while at the same time running a household. She was tough, and kind and worth knowing. As with all Grenville’s writing, the reader is in safe, pragmatic hands. I was drawn into the world her mother occupied and was keen to find out what happened next. I loved the snatches of conversations, the views of the landscape and worried about the emotional wellbeing of her mother. I was transported to the time of boarding houses, beer halls and political change brought about by World War II. This story becomes more than an elegy to a mother; it is an ode to our own past. Grenville has put her mother into our minds, into our very own chronicle.

Chris Gordon is the Events Manager for Readings. She blogs about food and gardening at Open Space Outside and puts together the food and gardening column for the Readings Monthly.

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