‘Leaping into Waterfalls’ and losing track of old friends

A long time ago I became friends with someone because her partner was my then-boyfriend’s uncle. The three of them lived together in an old terrace house in Fremantle, and we bonded over our love of red wine, books and morbid humour. She was twenty years older than me, but we somehow clicked, and when I think back to that time it’s the conversations with her that I most wish I could continue.  

She had returned to Perth to study law after ten years in London working as a journalist (this filled me with awe.) When she graduated she bought a fabulous pink suit to celebrate and we spent a day together cooking canapés for her party. Another time, she read my palm for me and I remember her face completely changing, becoming somehow ancient and peaceful in the limestone darkness of the back garden. Eventually we lost touch, and even though I Google her every so often, I am yet to track her down. She had a very common name (though nothing else about her was common) but I live in hope.

Anyway, one day she handed me a book and said: ‘This book is so, so sad! I have been crying all day! You absolutely have to read it!’

That book was The Mint Lawn by Gillian Mears, written when she was just 25, about a young woman in a country town, trapped in a marriage to her former school teacher and mourning the death of her wild mother.

That tear-stained copy has survived I don’t know how many house moves. Around that time we also studied one of Mears’ stories, Cousins, at uni – it was lush and purple and subversive and slightly too much and I have never forgotten it. I went on to read almost everything she wrote, including the work she published in HEAT, especially her essays Alive in Ant and Bee and Fairy Death, and I always loved her familiar voice, her often painful honesty and, hovering in the background, what I knew of her life from her occasional, very revealing interviews and portraits, including this recent one by poet Mike Ladd in the Sydney Review of Books.

She wrote a lot about sisters, and sadness, and childhood and the stifling nature of small towns for ambitious girls, and as the third of four sisters myself I could relate to so much of her writing.  I wasn’t alone: when she died in 2016, aged just 51, I heard a radio interview with her publisher saying that ‘no one had a mail bag like Gillian Mears.’

It took me a little while to read Leaping Into Waterfalls, a biography of her life by Bernadette Brennan. This was partly due to shipping costs but also, as one of my most cherished Australian writers I was reluctant to read anything that might make me somehow think less of her.

In the opening chapter, though, Bernadette Brennan sets out her reasons for writing a biography:

‘…Because Mears is one of the most important female writers of the last forty years, yet two of her books are already out of print. While her talent, and some aspects of her life, are remembered and treasured within a select community of readers, they deserve wider recognition and celebration.’

At that point, after glowing a little at ‘select community of readers,’ I knew I could relax and go along for the ride. And it was such an enjoyable read: a respectful and generous and honest biography. There were some surprises, too, in particular the possible answer to a question I had about the characters in Foal’s Bread.

The way Mears led her life was so unconventional, so beyond the narrow boundaries of what was then deemed acceptable for young women, that it would be easy to condemn her, particularly for the hurt she sometimes caused with her writing. You can’t miss how close she skates to memoir, how forensically cutting she can be about easily recognisable characters.

As Brennan writes in her opening: “Gillian Mears often likened herself to a Clarence Valley butcherbird, a creature filled with beautiful song who could also peck out the eyes of fledglings.” Reading her, there was often the queasy sense that she was taking you to places you didn’t necessarily want go; her descriptions were often astonishingly gross. A review in the Weekend Australian declared that ‘the text is rich in references to snot and rot and grottiness to which the flesh is heir… the overall effect is not unlike a flower arrangement upon which someone has recently chundered.”

But that was what was so compelling about her writing: she was excruciatingly honest in her work, and the sentences themselves would describe ugliness and beauty alike with her distinctive poetry.

It was fascinating to read that she became obsessed with handwork, and patchwork quilts in particular, something that’s been on my mind a lot after reading The Labyrinth, and it was also illuminating to read a chronological account of her life when her fiction always seemed to hover between autobiography and invention.

The tragedy of Gillian Mears is that she became incapacitated so young with multiple sclerosis, which also explains the long gaps in her publication record before her final novel. I didn’t realise how early into her life she was when she was diagnosed, nor how vulnerable she became in her ever-hopeful search for a cure.

Having read her fiction, I was half-aware of silences in the biography, I assumed to protect those still living, but these were not, to me, at the expense of the storytelling. Brennan sifted through some 154 boxes of her archives, now held in the State Library of New South Wales, to write this book, and the overall effect is inspiring, rich in detail, meticulous and a page-turner.

Brennan also builds a picture of the Australian literary world at that time, and I understood better why her later work mostly appeared only in HEAT. Much like Red Comet, Heather Clarke’s biography of Sylvia Plath, there is a lot here about writerly friendships and the unique arc of her career that is useful to any author. It was surprising (well, not that surprising, but instructive) to learn that her writing life was financially so precarious, and that she faced much rejection, despite her early success. I laughed at the fact that she would sometimes be paid early for an essay in HEAT, as she needed the money, and then when she was paid again in error on publication, she would refuse to pay it back. And yet, when she occasionally won money for a literary prize, she would immediately donate some to various causes.

Learning how sick she was when she wrote Foal’s Bread made me realise how much of an achievement her final novel was. If MS could be cured by willpower alone, she would no doubt still be here, and we’d have more of her writing. But it can’t be. We do have this biography, though, a celebration of her work and her life, which will hopefully lead other readers to her books.

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