review by Gabriel
The great achievement of Lilian’s Story is that it makes you sympathise with someone you would probably cross the street to avoid. It is loosely based around the life of Bea Miles, a larger than life figure who lived on the Sydney streets in the 1940s and 50s, and made her living offering public recitations of Shakespeare. The novel is held together by the strength of its unconventional heroin, Lilian Una Singer, and the author’s ability to make her often shocking eccentricity relatable, and even heroic.
The story follows Lilian, or Lil, from her birth on “a wild night in the year of Federation” (1901, for those not familiar with Australian history). The date of her birth is a significant choice, as the author, Kate Grenville, intends for Lil to represent elements of Australian culture. Not mainstream Australia, but the marginalised groups in society – especially women, but also Aborigines at some points, and even the land itself.
The significant events that occur in Australian history are not limited to a historically accurate chronology, but echo throughout Lil’s life. The narration is similarly loose with time. The reader can assume from the language that an adult Lil is narrating, but the story is firmly fixed in the present and gives no indication of reminiscence. As a narrator, Lil is a wealth of beautiful and humorous imagery and similes. This sometimes seems inconsistent with the character herself, who rarely displays such poetry in her everyday speech. However, this is only an occasional distraction.
Lil is born into a genteel house, but her childhood is oppressive. Her father, Albion, is a petty tyrant who obsessively compiles facts for a book that will never materialise. Their relationship is perhaps the central one in the book, and even when he is not physically present, his shadow is cast over all the other male characters. He is a chilling literary creation, and one of two characters in the novel who Grenville afforded a spin-off, titled Dark Places.
Lil fares no better at school. She is shunned by her schoolmates for being a fat tomboy, unwilling to conform to lady like behaviour. In her desperation to fit in, she is often cruel and boastful, but presents a refreshingly honest and resonant portrait of childhood. She has a number of significant encounters with the provocatively named Ms Gash, a pipe-smoking, trouser wearing artist who is clearly intended to provide Lil’s first encounter with feminism. The author continually highlights the oppression of girls in a way that reflects on modern society, and shows that the world has not changed as much as we might hope. However, while it’s a valid protest, Grenville sometimes belabours her feminist message to the point of tedium.
The strong feminist ideology continues as Lil enters university and experiences a sexual awakening, beautifully told but occasionally cliché. The novel takes a more original direction after Lil’s blossoming is interrupted by a brutal and shocking event, which is also one of the most skilfully written scenes in the novel. In order to overcome this, Lil shrugs off social norms, and comes to more closely resemble the person on whom she was based.
In interviews, Grenville has said that she wrote the novel in a disjointed fashion, mixing elements her own childhood with the events of Bea Miles life, without a clear plot in mind. This writing method helps explain why the last third of the novel doesn’t entirely cohere with what precedes it. At the conclusion of the second section, Lil is an adolescent finding freedom in isolation, occasionally defying social norms. As a woman, she is given to making a spectacle of herself in public, hungry for fame and human connection. While her dramatic transformation is partially explained by the trauma she endures, the transition doesn’t feel entirely organic. Nonetheless, it is the adult Lil that is the most memorable and compelling. Her fat, loud, uninhibited demeanour is contrasted with a wide eyed innocence, a hunger for experience, a profound dignity and a deep loneliness. She is frequently, and sometimes violently, anti-social, but Grenville manages to make her actions seem mischievous, forgivable, or else like rebellion against an oppressive or uptight system.
Lilian’s Story is an ambitious novel, exploring important themes and elements of Australian culture. It doesn’t always achieve its ambitions, but when it does, it is equal to the best of Australian literature. It also provides a memorable character that fills an important place in the culture – a character of generous size, heart and significance.