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

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

A Life of My Own

by Claire Tomalin

Viking, $55 hb, 352 pp, 9780241239957

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 withheld?

Tomalin’s memoir of a brilliantly successful life as journalist, literary editor, and author of eight biographies is more than a career study. It is a search for emotional truth in her painful, deeply troubled relations with her parents, and with her first husband, the philandering charmer, Nick Tomalin. The personal and the professional are woven together in a life remembered with remarkable resilience and magnanimity.

Reading Samuel Pepys, Tomalin says, made her aware of the seamlessness of experience. Unwanted by her father, she was conceived ‘not only without love but through the gritted teeth of [his] murderous loathing’ for her mother. Her parents divorced when she was eleven, after a ‘poisonous’ marriage, mostly spent apart from one another. Rivalry for parental affection meant that the two daughters of the marriage were never close to one another. Yet Tomalin doesn’t look back in bitterness. Memories of emotional neglect co-exist with knowledge of her mother’s intense love, a background that was culturally privileged, and eventual reconciliation with her father.

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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 latest book is Can You Hear the Sea? My grandmother's story (Text Publishing, 2018).

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