Brenda Niall Can You Hear the Sea?

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

In Can You Hear the Sea? Brenda Niall, au­thor of bi­ogra­phies of Martin Boyd, Judy Cassab and Daniel Man­nix, trains her eye on her grand­mother, Agnes “Ag­gie” Maguire.

The daugh­ter of Ir­ish refugees who have flour­ished in the grim sea­port of Liver­pool, Ag­gie comes to Aus­tralia in 1888. One of her broth­ers, Joe, has a “weak chest” and the fam­ily hopes the cli­mate will help. Nine­teen-year-old Ag­gie and her sis­ter Min­nie, for whom the grow­ing af­flu­ence of the fam­ily has only curbed free­doms, see an op­por­tu­nity for in­de­pen­dence.

Joe dies at sea. But be­fore he dies he gives Ag­gie a box he has made in the car­pen­ter’s shop. When Niall turns 10, Ag­gie gives it to her. It is a sur­pris­ing gift. As an avid reader and strong be­liever in ed­u­ca­tion, Ag­gie al­ways gave them books. More than 70 years later, this box is the im­pe­tus for the book. But so are the mem­o­ries of Ag­gie held dear by her 25 grand­chil­dren.

The cen­tre of their Sun­days in her poky flat in Melbourne’s Kew, Ag­gie was a big in­flu­ence, although she rarely spoke of her­self. Niall wants to make her grand­mother’s “si­lence speak”. She turns out to be a fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject.

Ag­gie moves from Melbourne to re­mote Bur­ramine to teach. She mar­ries a son of wealthy gra­ziers, also Ir­ish, who call her English, a na­tion­al­ity she re­jects. The Rive­rina life at the turn of the cen­tury proves a com­plex world of torn loy­al­ties, es­pe­cially for Ir­ish im­mi­grants, and Niall ex­pertly parses the ten­sions in Ag­gie’s fam­ily life.

This is a tu­mul­tuous time and there is a lot to un­pack. What did this so­cially pro­gres­sive woman make of the Boer War? Or World War I? What was her po­si­tion on Fed­er­a­tion? Or the place of women in it? These ques­tions of­fer Niall op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­plore the is­sues more broadly, but Ag­gie is not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the times. She is her own per­son, and full of con­tra­dic­tions, although her blind­ness to the plight of Indige­nous Aus­tralians dis­pos­sessed by these pi­o­neer­ing fam­i­lies is prob­a­bly rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

Can You Hear the Sea? feels dou­bly ele­giac. This is a kind of Aus­tralian fam­ily that is now rare: large, ex­tended, close knit. It is also a kind of bi­og­ra­phy on the way out. Niall has few sources at her dis­posal and yet those she does have – some let­ters, her mother’s “fam­ily me­moir” – will not be avail­able to fu­ture bi­og­ra­phers. Hope­fully peo­ple still find ways to write bi­ogra­phies that so adeptly cap­ture the par­tic­u­lar­ity of lived ex­pe­ri­ence. SH

Text, 304pp, $29.99

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.