Real-life Monopoly

6 months ago 90

In her new novel Kate Grenville once again mines Australian history through the stories of her family. Restless Dolly Maunder is a fictional exploration of the life of Grenville’s grandmother, the sixth of seven children born to a family struggling to make ends meet as farmers in New South Wales in the 1880s.

In some ways the novel covers well-trodden ground. Dolly excels at the minimal schooling available to her and dreams of a scholarship for further education and a teaching career, but her father forbids it: “Over my dead body any daughter of mine goes out to work”. Instead she stays home on the farm to work relentlessly, “trudging through the days, one coarse dirty job after another”. She quickly understands that marriage is her only way of achieving greater autonomy, and that a husband with property will serve her better than one who is merely attractive. She marries Bert (“He wasn’t the one she’d wanted”) and they move to a farm “closer to the sky, right up inside it”, well away from “in-laws and busy relatives coming and going and peering and tutting”. The marriage is difficult, but after the first few years Dolly reconciles herself to it and learns to manage three children in a place where “Your whole life came down to the whim of the weather”. The weather’s whims are indeed harsh, and in 1918 Dolly persuades Bert to move to Sydney to take up shopkeeping.

Grenville conveys the grimness and snatched pleasures of white women’s lives in nineteenth-century Australia expertly and with economy, and it is a relief to the reader, as well as to Dolly, to reach the opportunities afforded by urban commerce. Life in Sydney remains hard – Bert is good at customer relations and bad at fidelity – but there is now an avenue for Dolly’s social and economic aspirations, and she drives her family along it. They sell the shop and buy a hotel, then a bigger one. The children start at private schools, where they are bullied by their classmates and teachers. Nancy, the only girl and the chief focus of her mother’s ambition, does well, but never well enough, and their relationship, like all Dolly’s relationships, is fractious. Dolly keeps managing, and eventually she and Bert retire to a house rendered so lovingly that the reader also longs for it. Bert enjoys gardening and takes over the cooking, enjoying the “sweet revenge” of being able to buy “rich people’s food”. Dolly learns to drive, buys her own car, goes out to lunch and the races with friends, but, as her fiftieth birthday approaches “the old restlessness” returns. She persuades Bert to buy the hotel that was a byword for glamour and wealth in the town where they both grew up poor.

The reader can see what’s coming, narrative and historical momentum moving towards the boom and bust of the 1920s. The Monopoly game ends the way it always would, and the hardscrabble subsistence skills of Bert and Dolly’s youth are needed again. But Dolly’s ambitions for her daughter pay off: Nancy becomes a hospital pharmacist, married to a solicitor, and after the Second World War Dolly lives with them, caring for her three grandchildren with a little more kindness than she brought to motherhood.

One of the challenges of biographical fiction is to reconcile narrative pace and structure with the unstructured facts of real life and historical events. For Dolly’s generation the two world wars and the financial crash provide or impose a frame that complicates a smooth character arc: families go from rags to riches to rags to modest security; young men disappear to more or less heroic deaths, or return impaired in various ways inconvenient to fiction. The facts of real relationships are rarely the shape of romance, and here the marriage that defines much of Dolly’s life is almost, just, tolerable most of the time. She is not equipped by nature or nurture to be a kind or gentle parent, but she does compel or impel her children, and thus her grandchildren, into lives in every way richer than her own.

It is to the author’s credit that she offers us the ambivalence and complex textures of experience without losing the rhythm and pace of realist fiction. The landscapes, townscapes and domestic interiors are as vivid and memorable as we have come to expect from her writing, and the large cast is always kept in focus. I was surprised, especially given Kate Grenville’s other books, that the only reference to the Indigenous Australians on whose lands this story unfolds is in a note at the end, but, as the author says, “the family stories are silent about that truth”, and perhaps there’s little more to be said.

Sarah Moss’s latest novel is The Fell, 2021

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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