My Mother, My Father by Susan Wyndham

A collection of essays by fourteen Australian writers, My Mother, My Father responds to the universal question of how to make sense of the death of a parent. Edited by Sydney Morning Herald literary editor Susan Wyndham, this suite of memoirs comes together around the premise that though much has been written about loss and grief, personal stories speak directly to experience or, at least, provide evidence that one is not mad or alone.

While the collection’s value as a kind of literary self-help book should not be underplayed, My Mother, My Father also represents a collective endeavour to recover lost time. Helen Garner observes in typically direct prose that, ‘I set out to write about my mother, but I am already talking about my father.’ The struggle to recover the lost object not only after, but also during a lifetime, is expressed by a number of writers. Reflecting on her disinterested father, Kathryn Heyman writes, ‘He doesn’t ask me any questions, not one. Curiosity about my life, about anything, is beyond him.’ Grief that existed before the death is utterly entwined with the grief that follows.

Not unexpectedly for a collection of memoirs by established writers, this book also forms a biography of the writing life. Whether they tried to snuff the spark of inspiration or fan the flame, parents of writers have much to do with why their children write, and each story is alert to clues of influence and approval.

Detailed, candid and deeply personal, this collection explores the final secret, death, without sentimentality and without finality. With contributors also including Thomas Keneally, Gerard Windsor, Susan Duncan, David Marr and Mandy Sayer, My Mother, My Father shares what it means to lose a parent through stories that are feisty, funny and moving tributes to the lives that inspired them.

Lucy Van is a freelance reviewer.