Gillian Mears

The late Gillian Mear’s two governing passions were horse-riding and writing – passions that came together in the fiction for which she is best-known, such as Ride a Cock Horse (1988) and Foal’s Bread (2011). Mears’s life – from her childhood in rural New South Wales to her recourse to alternative therapies for her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis – has now been pieced together by Bernadette Brennan in Leaping into Waterfalls: The enigmatic Gillian Mears. In today’s episode, Brenda Walker reads her review of Brennan’s biography, which she describes as ‘a mighty and populous canvas’, charting the course of ‘a writer who took note of everything: parents, siblings, friends, lovers’. 

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In 2011, Bernadette Brennan convened a symposium on ‘Narrative and Healing’ at the University of Sydney, an opportunity for specialists in medicine and bereavement to meet writers with comparable interests. Helen Garner, for example, spoke about Joe Cinque’s Consolation. The day included an audiovisual piece about death as a kind of homecoming, with reference to the prodigal son, and exquisite photographs, including a picture of an elderly Irishman wheeling a bicycle with a coffin balanced on the seat and handlebars: austere and moving, a vision of austere and careful final transportation. Since 2011, Bernadette Brennan has written two literary biographies: A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her work (2017); and the wonderfully titled Leaping into Waterfalls: The enigmatic Gillian Mears. As with the Symposium, each biography is a genuine enquiry, a gathering of unexpected elements, and an invitation to later conversation. Brennan writes of Leaping into Waterfalls as an extension of a conversation she had with Mears in 2012. The Mears biography is certain to be a talking point for years to come.

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News from the Editor's Desk in the June–July issue of Australian Book Review.

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Gillian Mears has been to death’s door and back. Her wonderful essay ‘Alive in Ant and Bee’ (2007) recounts the journey and the exquisite pleasures of her life as a survivor. Writing has taken a back seat, understandably, over the past decade or so. There has been a short story collection, A Map of the Gardens (2002), but a novel from Mears is quite an event, sixteen years after her last, The Grass Sister (1995), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. It has been worth the wait. Foal’s Bread is a big and generous novel, set on a dairy farm in northern New South Wales in the mid-twentieth century: hard and often bitter times. In Mears’s world there is magic in the everyday, and portents everywhere.

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There’s something about country towns that makes them peculiarly well suited to being described in short stories. Or is it that short stories are particularly suited to describe life in country towns? Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor wrote about little else, and several Australian writers’ best books have been collections of stories set in country towns: Olga Masters’ A Long Time Dying, for example, and Frank Moorhouse’s The Electrical Experience. Gillian Mears’s Fineflour is a work which may be placed with absolute confidence beside any of those mentioned above.

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