In the early 90’s, a struggling writer is given what turns out to be a life changing opportunity. The daughter of Edna Cramner, a long forgotten war artist, wants to catalogue and share her mother’s work. Convinced there’s a real story there, the biographer ignores her agent’s concerns that it’s a go-nowhere vanity job and moves to Geelong, throwing herself into Edna’s past.
Divided between the biographer’s investigations, her own back story, and extracts from the eventual biography of Edna Cramner, Ruby J. Murray’s The Biographer’s Lover moves back and forth through time, creating pictures of two very different women. Particularly strong in her emotive descriptions of the local area, Murray also shines in crafting her narrator’s book and, for a work of fiction that focuses on a fictitious artist, the biography extracts and the descriptions of Edna’s work feel remarkably real.
As our unnamed narrator explores Edna’s story and the secrets the painter kept, The Biographer’s Lover raises interesting questions about the importance of collected family memory and where the line between fact and fiction occurs. How much of the stories we tell about our family are real, and how many are embellished and made inspiring, or exciting, or a little more palatable? What skeletons do we keep – purposely or not – in our collected closets? And, in the case of the novel’s lead character, what should an investigative writer include, and what should they sweep under the rug?
In Edna Cramner, the biographer has much of this to contend with, from conflicting accounts of Edna’s character, to embargoed correspondence, to a mysterious and lengthy trip abroad that Victoria, Edna’s daughter, insists had no bearing on her mother’s life. At some point in the process, the life of the artist – and by extension, that of their family – will become public property, but with Edna only dead for seven months and many of the secret keepers in Edna’s family still alive, they and the biographer can’t agree on when that point occurs. And all the while, each step the writer takes in exploring Edna’s life reveals a little more about her own, a life also centred around Geelong.
There’s something a little unsatisfying about The Biographer’s Lover and, oddly, that’s one of the book’s greatest strengths. That the biographer herself goes unnamed throughout the novel, whilst much of the story focuses on her, is a little unsettling. All the while, the biographer is both discovering and losing herself in Edna’s story and, like Edna and her art, her contribution is invaluable, but her name forgotten. All the while we learn little, and then suddenly too much about Edna, with a final plot twist that changes the life of biographer and project alike.
Less of a thriller than I’ve probably made it sound, Ruby J. Murray’s elegant and incisive second novel is a lyrical slow burn, exploring the pitfalls of memory, and the secrets we keep to protect our families.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Biographer’s Lover is available now through Black Inc.