Brenda Niall has touched on aspects of her own life in many of her admired biographies of writers and artists, such as the Boyd family and the Durack sisters, and Melbourne’s Irish Catholic Father Hackett and Archbishop Mannix. Time – and perhaps the deaths of central people – has pulled her focus in close to tell the story of her maternal grandmother, Agnes Gorman, and through her the extended family, in Can You Hear the Sea?
This portrait of an impressive ordinary woman reminded me of Kate Grenville’s biography of her mother, One Life (2015). Like Grenville, Niall had the gift of her mother’s unpublished memoirs, which she explains were both the main source and the impetus for her book. How fortunate, in both cases, that they were passed on to responsible, professional writers. Niall also applies all her skills as a biographer, drawing on other family records and interviews with surviving relatives, as well as public archives and published histories. She is clear about her process, asking questions, noting gaps, offering her own memories with an easy blend of intimacy and distance, in an authoritative yet conversational voice.