Australian writer Kate Grenville’s new book is a homage to her mother Nance, an ‘ordinary’ woman who decided she wasn’t going to follow in her own mother’s footsteps. She talks to Linda Herrick.

According to poet Philip Larkin's This Be The Verse: "They f*** you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you."

However, the chain of life doesn't have to be so very bleak. If you are raised by loving, kind parents, you have every chance of becoming a secure, positive adult well-equipped to nurture your own kids when they come along.

On the downside, many are not so fortunate. One such was Australian writer Kate Grenville's mother Nance, burdened by the sour personality of her mother Dolly, who simply wasn't programmed for happiness; she was just another person in a family in which cruelty and misery had become habits, passed down like hideous heirlooms.

But Grenville was lucky - Nance made a decision to break the cycle. Despite being married to an emotionally cold philanderer, Nance did everything she could to raise her three children in a happy home. She also made sure her own life was active and fulfilling. She didn't follow in Dolly's footsteps, bitter and complaining to her dying day.

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Grenville pays thanks to Nance, who died in 2002, in her clear-eyed, unsentimental new book One Life: My Mother's Story. "My mother wasn't the sort of person biographies are usually written about," she writes in the prologue. "She wasn't famous, had no public life ... did nothing that made the history books. Just the same, I think her story is worth telling."

Grenville had plenty of material to work with. Nance had jotted down stories in notebooks over the years, saying in one, "I have often thought about writing a book ... it can't be that hard." Her efforts always petered out.

Grenville had to wait for a few years after Nance's death at the age of 90 before she could bring herself to open the notebooks. "When somebody dies that you are very close to, as I was to my mother, you are torn between wanting to remember them and not wanting to subject yourself to the pain of realising they are not there any more," she says on the phone from Sydney. "I think it is very common for people to put things away and you can't quite bear to get them out and look at them ... one thing that impelled me to do it was I knew that Mum had left a lot of bits and pieces and partly because I had tape-recorded her for several hours over the years, so I knew there was something there."

In the opening of the book, Grenville briskly traces her lineage back to the arrival in Australia in 1806 of her great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman, the central character in her chilling 2005 novel The Secret River, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Wiseman, transported from London for theft, was extremely brutal to his servants, wives (he was rumoured to have thrown his first wife over a balcony) and children. Education was scorned. Three generations on, his great-great granddaughter Dolly, who left school at 14, wanted to be a teacher. Her father forbade such a thing. "A daughter going to work would shame him."

Protestant Dolly fell in love - with a Catholic boy. Again, she was thwarted, eventually forced to marry a farmer called Bert, chosen by her mother because she liked the way he sliced bacon. Bert had a wandering eye and no head for business. Nance was born into this desolate marriage in 1912; she and her older brother, Frank, would lie in bed at night listening to the shouting.

Because of Dolly's restless unhappiness, and the family's poverty, they were constantly on the move, eventually ending up running a pub in Queensland. They later went bust in the Great Depression.

One night at the hotel Nance sat on the stairs in the pub, listening to her parents row. Storming out of the room, her mother caught her.

"Your father's a rotten bugger of a man," cried Dolly, writes Grenville in One Life. "I might as well be dead."

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"Don't say that Mum," Nance said. "You've still got us."

"Oh," Dolly cried, "you children! You children don't matter!"

Grenville got to know Dolly when she came to live with the family in Sydney in her final years. Grenville was about 5.

"She was a frightening creature," she recalls. "I never saw her smile and none of the photos show her smiling. I only remember her as complaining. One day she came across me in the garden and she said to me, 'Do you love me, Kathy?' and I was a very truthful child. I remember looking up at this dark, wrinkled, cranky face and saying, 'NO.' Of course, she was hopping mad and went and told my mother who had to have this difficult conversation with me about how sometimes it is better to tell a little white lie," she laughs.

In one sense, Dolly did something positive for Nance when she left school. Nance wanted to be a teacher but Dolly was adamant, "you'll be a pharmacist," and sent her off to Sydney to study and work as an apprentice in a chemist shop. Nance ended up working seven days a week, at one point so exhausted she almost threw herself under a tram.

"Mum never understood it and she felt quite bitter against her mother for forcing her into what was essentially slavery for seven or eight years," says Grenville. "But looking at it as an outsider, I puzzled my way through to the fact that Dolly realised she had been deprived of any chance to have a career. In a way it was an ambition for her daughter but she was never able to say, 'Listen, I did this for your sake'."

Nance studied hard, coming second in the state of New South Wales when she passed her finals. Most significantly, she had an affair with Charlie, the owner of the pharmacy where she worked, but it was shortlived; he went off to Scotland to study medicine but continued to write to her. "Mum was definitely in love with him and he obviously really liked her," says Grenville. "His letters were full of affection and he treats her like an equal, very frank and companionable ... I think they could have been very happy together."

Bereft, Nance started seeing a lawyer called Ken she met at a socialist meeting, who, when he proposed, told her he admired her, esteemed her, but never that he loved her. After their marriage in 1940 - the passages about the honeymoon are squirm-making - Nance started to notice things about Ken: "he wasn't really interested in what she did ... he went to lots of party meetings ... at the end of a few months she could see she wasn't going to like life with Ken" - but then she fell pregnant and couldn't leave.

Just as Australian men were signing up to fight in World War II, Ken joined the Trotskyites and became "Comrade Roberts", denouncing the war as "the capitalists' war" and working as a labourer on the wharves to avoid conscription. After three years of marriage and two children, he had never once told Nance he loved her. And, in a typical flip-flop, he renounced the Trots and took up the law again.

At one point, Nance works out why she'd picked the wrong man: "She hadn't had enough experience of love," Grenville writes. "She didn't want to do that to her children."

"Mum's assessment of him was that he'd had a fairly miserable childhood himself," she says. "I think it was part of that generation of men. Mum was asking a fair bit of him. It was a very stitched-up Australia. Dad had grown up in a very stitched-up middle-class house. He had that whole burden of 'don't show emotion, don't be spontaneous' ... I don't blame Dad for that and I don't think Mum did either. She tried to understand him in his context of time and place."

Ken did many good things for his family. He taught Nance to drive and with the aid of a book, How To Build Your Own Home, the couple did just that in Mona Vale, north of Sydney, Nance learning how to make and lay the bricks. Nance also set up her own pharmacy, but had to give up, defeated by the lack of childcare, a situation repeated when they moved to North Sydney in the mid-50s.

Ken left after 25 years of marriage - he'd got another woman pregnant. Towards the end of One Life he confesses to having had a fling - something Nance already knew because she'd smelt the perfume on his shirt - and he argues that the woman had thrown herself at him. "Desperate for a man, poor thing, and Nance, I'm a weak reed." Then he laughed.

Before the marriage ended, Grenville's mother had started an arts degree, majoring in French and Italian, then doing honours, travelling to Europe and later teaching English as a foreign language. She became a deep reader and supported Grenville in practical ways when she started to write.

When Nance died, her children received a codicil attached to her will, a letter which opens with: "My dear children, First I want to say, you children have made my life, you are the only important thing I ever did and I want to thank you for all you have given me. Each of you is special ..."

"I was unbelievably lucky," says Grenville. "I bless the fact I had her for a mother - all three of us feel that way. With that letter, I thought, 'What could I leave my children that could in any way convey to them what I feel about them?' Mum was so wise and so generous. One of the things further down in that codicil was to say, 'Mourn me but not too much.' I've had a good laugh at that and I often think of that."

One Life: My Mother's Story (Text Publishing $37) is out now.