Susan Wyndham reviews 'Can You Hear the Sea? My Grandmother’s Story' by Brenda Niall

Susan Wyndham reviews 'Can You Hear the Sea? My Grandmother’s Story' by Brenda Niall

Can You Hear the Sea?: My Grandmother’s Story

by Brenda Niall

Text Publishing, $29.99 hb, 276 pp, 9781925498790

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham is the former literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. In her career as a journalist she has been editor of


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 Like Grenville, Niall had the gift of her mother’s unpublished memoirs, which she explains were both the main source and the impetus for her book.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.

Read the rest of this article by purchasing a subscription to ABR Online, or subscribe to the print edition to receive access to ABR Online free of charge.

If you are already a subscriber, click here, or on the ‘Log In’ tab in the top right hand corner of the screen, and enter your username and password to log in. If you have logged in but are still seeing this message your subscription to ABR Online may have expired. Please contact us or click here to renew your subscription to ABR Online. More information about ABR Online can be found on our Frequently Asked Questions page.

Published in December 2017, no. 397

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.