But what happened after must not eclipse what came before. Brennan is superb to show Mears in her madness and glory: needy, demanding, sometimes manipulative and ruthless, but also charismatic, attractive to both men and women, physically courageous, a generous friend, a playful aunt, an advocate. passionate about the natural world. and his creatures (especially horses), endowed with a genius to live without restraint.
For the ladies among us who still pretend to have orgasms, see the not very feminine Mears phone her ex-husband to ask about his pleasure techniques so she can pass her advice on to a new lover she found sexually. desirable. If this particular story doesn’t tell us anything about Mears, perhaps the fact that her ex was willing to provide two pages of typed instructions, while her new lover was offended but mostly in awe of her daring, tells us more about its fascinating attractions.
Or see Mears fly off alone in a disused ambulance to the wilderness of the bush, or see her in extremis physical, her body half paralyzed, crawling up a mountain in Venezuela in search of a miracle.
The writer and remarkable person Gillian Mears has become owes it all to her early days, and Brennan confidently navigates her animated origin story. If Mears’ work has a certain Gothic quality, it is because his family and his youth contained psychic dramas of Shakespearean proportions.
Her father was an herb scientist and her talented but dissatisfied mother a charismatic figure. Somehow, the family – mother, father, Mears and her three sisters – became emotionally entangled, so that invariably one sister felt betrayed by another, or one sister did not speak to one. other until hell freezes over. When Mears was 15, her best friend was shot and killed by her own mother.
Lots of material, eh? Except the material was also the material of her beloved older sister Yvonne, a writer too (no luck for her), and when Mears nipped part of Yvonne’s title (Grass angels) for his own second novel (The sister of the grass), Yvonne was indignant.
There is much more to the ethics of writers creating books out of lived experience, and no doubt some of Mears’ friends, lovers, and relatives felt aggrieved. Mears was a compulsive letter-writer and columnist – Brennan draws heavily on her enormous archives – and some felt betrayed after learning she had sold their letters to the NSW State Library.
Brennan’s stories sometimes leave out other stories tucked inside. I wasn’t a close friend of Mears, and I wasn’t interviewed for this book either, but I was invited to her last big party when she danced in her wheelchair, and which Brennan describes like an “uncertain” evening, in part because of concern over the news. of the crash of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine.
What Brennan leaves out is why Mears and the other members of the Australian literary community in attendance that evening were confused: Rumor was brewing that one of our own, Melbourne novelist Liam Davison, was at edge.
What was left out? And doesn’t that illustrate the ambiguity of the biographical accounts?
Brennan writes that one of her motivations in writing the book is her belief that Mears’ work deserves to be more widely celebrated and remembered. Her biography shows a remarkable duty of care to Mears the wife and the writer, and should immediately plunge new readers into the unknowable sea of Mears.
Susan Johnson’s latest novel is From where i fell is published by Allen & Unwin.
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