Bite Your Tongue
In Bite Your Tongue, Professor Francesca Rendle-Short managed to pull-off a remarkable feat: a fictionalised memoir that moves pretty-well-effortlessly between the directly auto-biographical and the lyricism of good fiction. Her description here, of her created self, ‘Glory’, represented in a childhood photograph of Francesca, sums up the relationship between the two ‘characters’:
Here, swimming in this backyard pool, a little girl and her rubber ring make music in the water with a leg cocked sidewards, a face angled skywards. Here in these words, she comes alive in story. Together, she and I become more than simply a portrait of what once was. As the story gets going, the two of us swim together with only a slit of indiscernible Brisbane daylight between—depending on the slant, the hold, the poetry. Water drips through our hair.
Glory’s childhood is viewed through several lenses in the telling of this story; Glory as a child, an adolescent and grown woman are threaded through the narrative, with cameos from the author herself. Through Glory, Rendle-Short tells the story of a ‘difficult mother’, the larger-than-life and very real Angel Rendle-Short who advocated, by acts of public activism, for the banning (nay burning!) of books in the conservative sunshine of Bjelke Petersen’s Queensland. Her intentions are good: to save the souls (and virtues) of Qld’s young people, to save them in their purity, for Jesus.
In Hecate, Rendle-Short writes:
It was not only English Today that she wanted to ban: she had a long list of objectionable books, more than one hundred titles, including such books as The Catcher in the Rye, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Mrs Dalloway, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Gone with the Wind and, the jewel in any censor’s crown: Lolita.
Glory is not the only character to receive a nom de plume: Angel becomes ‘Motherjoy’ and Glory’s father, ‘Onward’. Underpinning the novel is the religious faith and marriage that sustains these two, and the process of their ageing; their dwindling. The description of the adult Rendle-Short children ‘packing up’ their parents’ lives, in particular the bookshelf, is truly moving and a tender snapshot of an admirable intimacy:
Glory watches, witness here to a sacrament, the intimacy of sharing like the giving and receiving of Communion in church, the passing between them of bread and wine—the body and blood of Christ. These two people have been together for over half a century and now hold each other together at this crossroads with a saving grace they administer one to the other with the pages of the books they’ve read and loved and cared for over the years. These books map out a story of their lives—
Intimacy, experienced and yearned-for, is at the heart of this story. The intimacy between a child and her own body, between sisters, between parents, between a mother and her daughter (so painfully drawn in the adult Glory’s fear and longing to kiss her elderly mother’s cheek). Child Glory is swept up in her mother’s righteous campaign (as are we all, as children, swept up in our mother’s whirlpool of wisdom, what ever it may be – even absence), yet Glory is always, in part, distanced: wary. Children are sensitive, knowing creatures and Bite Your Tongue does a great job of giving voice to this tenuous quality of childhood. Glory adores her mother, and yet is frightened, too:
If Motherjoy thought that the books were wicked, then Glory thought so too, they must be. And tongues were cut out for such a thing, for wickedness that is, as well as for non-belief. It paid to be on the side of righteousness.
‘Remember whose side you are on, Glory Girl.’
Something I really loved about this novel is the bold and visceral experience of childhood itself: a child’s relationship with urine and saliva, for example; the fine line between innocence and shame.
As Glory moves into adolescence, it becomes impossible to ignore the difference between her mother’s behaviour and ‘normality’. The ‘revenge’ enacted by Glory’s schoolmates to Motherjoy’s very public objections to the books taught at Glory’s school and Glory’s subsequent persecution by the awful English teacher ‘Miss Keynote’ (a punishment of exclusion perceived by her peers as ‘special treatment’), is brilliantly written, truly chilling and made me cry. But as much as this is a story about the private strangeness of family and negotiating what happens when that’s played out in the public sphere, it is also a novel about literature and about books.
Glory reckons good books shed light the way strips of skin peel off from around fruit, and this light—the colour, the smell, the juice—squeezes into the cracks of our hearts. You can feel it, taste it. Books seduce us. They make our hearts beat fast. The best of them can disrupt us, shift the axis of our universe, nudge us word by word into unchartered spaces.
To read a really, really good book for the very first time—especially those books that were once strictly forbidden—it’s sweeter than you could ever imagine.
Reading changes things.
I think Bite Your Tongue is a brave and admirable work and a good read. If I had a wish, it is that the author had let us in to the ‘scene’ that Motherjoy makes in the hospital in the final chapters, but perhaps this was just too painful to recount. The fictionalised account of Motherjoy’s passing is absolutely moving.
While generally a great fan of SPUNC and Spinifex Press, my only complaint about this novel is the production values of the artefact itself. While seamlessly edited, I found the uninspiring cover of my paperback copy, the margin-less pages and poor photograph reproduction a disappointment, particularly in such a great book that is a celebration, in one sense, of ‘the book’.