Fiction review: So this is life

So this is lifeSo this is life
Anne Manne
Melbourne University Press

When I came to the last page of Anne Manne’s memoir So This is Life, I wept. By that time I was her closest friend and had cried and laughed my way through seventeen stories of her early life. Manne has the fundamental quality of a good writer – the ability to connect with the reader.

Better known as an essayist, Manne is a consummate storyteller. The memoir is subtitled ‘scenes from a country childhood’ and each standalone chapter works like a short story to describe a pivotal episode, many of them moments of epiphany in the young girl’s life. As the book progresses, it becomes a series of shorter vignettes, told with panache and delicious humour.

So this is life starts with Manne, aged seven, leaving her first home in Adelaide by train with her mother and sisters to start a new life in country Victoria. They leave behind the father and the girls’ brother. Life is bleak, but we get a glimpse of the future, where a sense of loss will be replaced by curiosity, vitality and gratitude. It is a reflective, rather intellectual, start, outlining her thoughts on emotional memory and her approach to the memoir, with reference to Proust, Clive James and Virginia Woolf. She quotes Woolf on the ‘hyper-alert state of being’ and states her intention to use similar scenes of revelation as the focus of her own memoir.

All changes when we come to Chapter Two. From now on, the writing is dynamic, full of action and imagery, joy and humour. ‘So this is life,’ comments the young girl, as life serves up the first of its disappointments. She sticks to her stoic mantra until one day, all changes with the entrance of Chicken, The Killer Pony. It is by handling Chicken that she experiences her first epiphany, and unleashes her own irrepressible spirit.

Horses play a dominant role in the memoir and her life. A natural rider, she succeeds in expressing the sensual bond of horse and rider, when they are ‘united in creatureliness’, most poignantly in the story ‘Centaur’. During long wanderings on horseback through the bush, the author develops a love of the landscape and an affinity with the natural world. The horse, the rider and the landscape come to vivid life in the writer’s hands.

In a swift change of mood, we are treated to many of Manne’s character studies. ‘Mrs Mac’ is a brilliant moral tale about a horse called Flame, a tiny red bucket, a raging river, a tiny girl, an act of kindness and a moment of transcendence. ‘The Verdict’ is a portrait of Manne’s aloof and intellectual mother in the throes of creating a pavlova – a touching and hilarious look at a family acting in solidarity, caught up in their mother’s attempts at normality. The rhythm of the sentences – the short juxtaposed with the long – lead to stabbing climaxes on a journey to the final verdict on the pavlova.

In the course of these stories we meet three great-aunts in their crumbling Victorian mansion; Old Ma Doak who works in a road gang and lives outside the boundaries of male and female stereotypes; Nan with her Principles of Life that hinge on the power of cooking, the priority of washday and ‘The Importance of a Lovely Brick Home’; Mr and Mrs Slavedriver, who own the farm where Manne works as a jilleroo; and Helga the Goatherd, an ethereal woman who tends the Golden Goat, Cinn-Ah-Mon. With Helga’s story, Manne reaches the peak of her comic powers, but still maintains her tender, sympathetic touch.

Even the most unscrupulous or hopeless characters are treated with kindness and understanding. Behind the colourful characters in village life are brave people who have suffered ordinary tragedies. Only her Grade 5 and 6 teacher Old Emu is painted entirely black. She makes it clear that ‘Dux’ is written as an act of vengeance on him.

Each chapter of the memoir builds up a picture of the narrator, her inner world and how others see her. Manne references earlier stories, so they feed into each other and build up our intimacy with the narrator. We see her growing up, a fearless woman in a world still governed by patriarchal values, most evident in the horseracing fraternity, where she works as a strapper and where women are lowest in The Great Chain of Being (Manne has a masterful use of capital letters). She succeeds in revealing unfairness and hypocrisy without losing her empathy or her sense of humour.

The last chapter – the one that made me cry – is a beautiful story of her friendship with a widower farmer, whose pragmatic attitude to the country is at odds with her own emotional bond. As she starts to see the world through his eyes, her opposition melts. This portrait of loneliness, tracing nuances of remorse and grief in a wider historical context, brings together Manne the essayist and Manne the storyteller in a moving tribute to the countryman.

Carol Middleton

Carol Middleton is an award-winning Melbourne-based writer. She reviews books for Australian Book Review and music and theatre for Australian Stage.

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