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Brenda Niall

Brenda Niall

Brenda Niall’s writing career began during her time as an academic at Monash University, where she was Reader in the Department of English. Since 1995 she has been writing full time. Her books include award-winning biographies Martin Boyd: A Life (1988), Georgiana (1995), The Boyds (2002), Judy Cassab (2005), and a memoir, Life Class (2007). Her book The Riddle of Father Hackett was shortlisted for the 2010 Magarey Medal for Biography. She is a frequent reviewer for The Age and ABR, and has been a guest at the Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Byron Bay literary festivals. In 2004 she was awarded an AO for services to Australian Literature. Her most recent books are My Accidental Career (2022), Can You Hear the Sea? My grandmother's story (2018) and  Friends and Rivals: Ethel Turner, Barbara Baynton, Henry Handel Richardson and Nettie Palmer (2020). 

Brenda Niall reviews 'Before I Forget: An early memoir' by Geoffrey Blainey

September 2019, no. 414 26 August 2019
Unlike an autobiography, which tends to be time-bound and inclusive, the memoir can wander at will in the writer’s past, searching out and shaping an idea of self. Although Geoffrey Blainey’s memoir, Before I Forget, is restricted to the first forty years of his life, its skilfully chosen episodes suggest much more. The memoir shows how Blainey set his own course as a historian and forecasts t ... (read more)

Brenda Niall reviews 'A Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943–1995' edited by Gregory Kratzmann

November 2001, no. 236 01 November 2001
From a small island, messages in a bottle floating out to sea. That was Gwen Harwood’s image for the poems she sent out during her early years in Tasmania, long before she had due recognition. Her letters, by contrast, knew their destination; they were treasured for decades by her friends, and they now make up the remarkable collection A Steady Storm of Correspondence. As editor, Gregory Kratzm ... (read more)

Brenda Niall reviews 'The Great Fire' by Shirley Hazzard

February 2004, no. 258 01 February 2004
London seen through a haze of smoke and fire in J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, is the evocative cover image for Shirley Hazzard’s long-awaited novel. The Great Fire comes twenty-three years after Hazzard’s brilliantly composed, witty, and ultimately tragic work The Transit of Venus. Like the earlier novel, The Great Fire is ambitious in theme and in ... (read more)

Brenda Niall reviews 'March' by Geraldine Brooks

April 2005, no. 270 01 April 2005
Spacious and solidly constructed, the classic nineteenth-century novel invites revisiting. Later writers reconfigure its well-known spaces, change the lighting, summon marginal figures to the centre. Most memorable, perhaps, is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), in which the first Mrs Rochester, the madwoman in the Thornfield attic, is allowed a voice and a history. She tells a story very dif ... (read more)

Brenda Niall reviews 'Upstate' by James Wood

November 2018, no. 406 25 October 2018
Forget the author – it’s the book that matters. That’s sound advice, but there are times when it is hard to follow. James Wood’s Upstate is a testing case. A quietly reflective little novel, elegantly written, with four main characters and a minimal plot, Upstate doesn’t look like a literary time bomb. Yet because its author is a renowned literary critic, it is bound to set off disputes ... (read more)

Brenda Niall reviews 'Loving Words: Love letters of Nettie and Vance Palmer 1909–1914' by Deborah Jordan

September 2018, no. 404 23 August 2018
When Vance Palmer met Nettie Higgins in the summer of 1909 in the sedate setting of the State Library of Victoria, they were both twenty-three years old. Yet even to speak to one another was a breach of convention; they had not been introduced, and Nettie at least felt quite daring. An arts student at Melbourne University, she had never been far from her parents’ house. Vance had made the break ... (read more)

Brenda Niall reviews 'Rosie: Scenes from a vanished life' by Rose Tremain

August 2018, no. 403 25 July 2018
‘Write about what you don’t know,’ British novelist Rose Tremain advised young authors. That has been her own strategy during a long and star-studded career. It is quite a stretch from the court of England’s Charles II in Restoration (1989), or that of Christian IV of Denmark in Music and Silence (1999), or that of the muddy goldfields of The Colour (2003) set in nineteenth-century New Zea ... (read more)

Brenda Niall reviews 'The Shepherd’s Hut' by Tim Winton

March 2018, no. 399 22 February 2018
There are no sheep grazing anywhere near the shepherd’s hut of Tim Winton’s new novel. A few wild goats in the desolate landscape, some broken machinery: that’s all. The narrator, fifteen-year-old Jaxie Clackton, prime suspect for killing his abusive father, is on the run from the police. His scanty food supplies have dwindled almost to nothing and he is desperate for water. He has no gun an ... (read more)

Brenda Niall reviews 'Mrs Osmond' by John Banville

January–February 2018, no. 398 20 December 2017
The last page of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (1881) leaves its heroine, Isabel Osmond, with an ambiguous choice. To go back into the cage of her wretched marriage might be an exercise of will for duty’s sake, or an evasion, based on fear. Readers have been disputing Isabel’s motives ever since her creator so provokingly left the door ajar. Now, distinguished Irish novelist John Banville ... (read more)

Brenda Niall reviews 'A Life of My Own' by Claire Tomalin

January–February 2018, no. 398 19 December 2017
When a biographer tells her own story, the rules change. Because the subject is the self, the problem is not so much a search for the unknown, but what to tell about the known and how to tell it. One of Britain’s finest biographers, Claire Tomalin, has spoken of her pleasure in ‘investigating’ other people’s lives. What happens when she turns to her own life? What will be told and what wit ... (read more)
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