Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: Lilian's Story by Kate Grenville

I enjoyed this novel by Australian author Kate Grenville, after a bit of a bumpy start.  Lilian's Story was first published in 1985 and is a real favourite amongst Australian readers.  I was prepared to dislike it because I often find it difficult to fully engage with some of the, overcoming of childhood adversity or "triumph of the human spirit"  type stories.  And while Lilian's story certainly fits that bill, its effect completely snuck up on me, and far from contrived, I found it genuinely moving and surprising.

 The novel, told by Lilian in the first person, begins with her childhood, where the reader experiences the isolation and strength she must employ to withstand her father's cruelty and abuse, and her mother's disengagement.  Lilian eats excessively to try and create a barrier between herself and her father. 

I won't relay more of the plot details, except to say the book is divided into three parts: "A Girl", "A Young Lady" and "A Woman" which take the reader through the shaping of this woman from a bullied, but resourceful child, to someone trying to find her place in the world and realise her dreams.

Grenville uses a number of literary devices.  The chapters within the parts of the book, are very short, sometimes only a page long, this increases the pace of the narrative.  The brief chapters also seem to correspond to a life remembered in chards, and like memory, certain details stand out  with brilliant clarity and significance.  The meaning of events to Lilian is conveyed consistently and effectively.   The dialogue in the story was italicized, not enclosed with quotation marks.  While I am sure this was done to add to the remembered, first person, feel of the narrative, it mostly just annoyed me.

Lilian's story is peopled by some wonderful characters.  Her younger brother John is an interesting character, and their relationship, plagued by the influence of their abusive father, is poignantly portrayed as it endures into adulthood. 

Themes relating to mental illness and societal reactions to mental illness in the first half of the twentieth century play a major role in Lilian's life and story.  While the story is set in an earlier era, the issues around mental illness and its misconceptions still seem relevant today.  Where Grenville succeeds, is in creating a story that celebrates everyone's unique story.  She invites the reader to consider and remember that behind every face there is a story.  Like that wonderful REM song "Everybody Hurts", and some people have experienced such a degree of trauma in their lives, that to cope they may no longer fit an image of what others consider normal or acceptable.  For me this is what Lilian's story is about and where it shines.

Lilian's Story reminds me a great deal of Sebastian Barry's "The Secret Scripture" in its themes.  The Secret Scripture was one of my favourite reads of last year (in the top two), and while Lilian's Story did not hit the same heights for me, it is none the less impressive and memorable.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read this yet, but it does sound really interesting. One of those books on my 'read more Australiana' list that I haven't got around to yet.


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