TEXT review

Milestones in auto/biography

review by Moya Costello



Carol Lefevre
The Happiness Glass
Spinifex, North Geelong VIC, 2018
Pb 152pp, AUD 24.95


Marion May Campbell
The Man on the Mantlepiece: A Memoir
UWA Publishing, Crawley WA 2018
Pb 232pp, AUD 24.95


Brien and Eades (2018: 3) perceive that contemporary life writing has ‘numerous innovative incarnations’. Equally, Cardell, Douglas and Brien (2018: 4) characterise contemporary life narrative as having ‘creative approaches’ (4) and ‘formative hybridity’ (4).

The first thing to say about Lefevre’s The Happiness Glass and Campbell’s The Man on the Mantlepiece, each a remarkable book, is that their structure is to be noticed. Cardell, Douglas and Brien (2018: 4) state that in writing life narrative, (creative) writers tend to focus ‘on the … challenges of assembly in … life narration’. Then there’s these two books’ genres … and content and style. There’s everything, really, to be noted.

A book-length work, in particular, requires thinking about assembly or structure. (Often shorter forms will end themselves.) In relation to creative nonfiction (CNF), Helen Garner (2017) arranges her most recent book, Everywhere I Look, under headings of particular pieces, gathering under that title works of similar content. Lefevre’s Happiness Glass and Campbell’s Man on the Mantlepiece are sure-fired sources of impressive structuring too.

Lefevre has adeptly reinvented Beverly Farmer’s (1990) Body of Water strategy (‘innovative itself as a hybrid of journal, short stories and poems’ [Costello 2013]), linking CNF to fiction. The five sections in The Happiness Glass deal with childhood/early-adult life, in vitro fertilisation (IVF), travel, adoption, then post-adoption. As Lefevre explains, ‘each section begins with a memoir piece or personal essay followed by one or more short fictions’ (151). Of the short stories, she says she knew ‘they were part of a longer, unwritten, autobiographical narrative’ (151). Then she was blessed with the idea of combining the genres.

Campbell’s The Man on the Mantlepiece has seven parts, dealing with her own and her sister’s childhood; her father’s early life, career and death; her mother; and her own life. In her work, Campbell parallels Brian Castro’s blend of ‘fiction, critique and autobiography’ (van den Berg 2010). Castro (1999: 105) writes that:

[a]gainst genre classification, the generic function I’ve used most of all is a form which is not only unstable ... but which has the potential to trangress the furthest. This is the auto/biographical form.

In a study of Castro’s oeuvre, Van den Berg uses Lejeune’s notion of an ‘autobiographical space’ to see that the ‘repetitions and gaps of this ... space sketch the life of an “autobiographical persona”, a phantasm of the author’. Lejeune’s ‘autobiographical space’ attends ‘to the role of the reader in connecting a writer’s works across genres and contradictory truth claims’ (van den Berg 2010).

Lefevre and Campbell confront what Lefevre calls the ‘difficulties of life writing’ (151), prime among them being the question of truth. Campbell’s ‘Prologue’ is a mini thesis on these problems of the genre:

There is … no sure way of sourcing the true thing… No real knowledge to be gained, beyond the tease and betrayal of forensic facts and the back routes that fantasy takes to build its compensations. (1)

Lefevre’s linking of fact and fantasy is rich, multiplying the experience to induce various resonances and add depth. For example, in section one, the long CNF, ‘Burning with Madame Bovary’, analyses, philosophises, theorises, and meditates on Lefevre’s early life. But with the three fiction works in this section, it is as if Lefevre puts her memory-camera in close-up mode and works by intimate and small detail to vividly colourise the same material. (Each section does begin with a photograph.) In the Bovary CNF, there’s this: ‘[O]ur next door neighbours were a … couple given to violent, alcohol-fuelled … arguments. The woman sometimes spoke to my mother over the fence, blaming her slurred speech on radiation from the tests at Maralinga’ (6). Then there’s the same content in the fiction ‘The Stars of the Milky Way’: ‘Dorrie Brickle appeared at the gap in the fence… “It’s rr…radiation damage, Missus Brennan… It’s wrecked my memory”… Later …. shouts and crashes erupted next door’ (23). 

Although Lefevre is a cosmopolitan, having lived for lengthy periods in Europe, she grew up in the tough country of Wilcannia and Broken Hill. ‘I started school in Wilcannia, but I have seen Paris. Most days, that is enough’ (21). Memorable are her descriptions of early schooldays, with their accompanying mini object or commodity biographies. For example: 

the double-decker wooden pencil case … the most desirable object in the town… Its sliding lid … its two sections swivelled to reveal the secret lower chamber … with a small compartment for an eraser and a sharpener. (4)

Both The Happiness Glass and The Man on the Mantlepiece trade in mystery. In the former, we want to know what’s the deal with the violence of the Wilcannia next-door neighbours, the Brickles; if Lefevre/Lily will return from Europe; whether the IVF will be successful; and, last but not least, the reason for the adopted child’s leaving without explanation, not to be seen again up to the present moment of the book’s ending. In The Man on the Mantlepiece, we want to know the cause of Campbell’s father’s death and about its ‘fallout’ (to pun here: his plane fell from the sky) or, as Campbell titles her last two sections, its ‘Aftermath’ and ‘Verge’-like nature.

Both writers deal with trauma, reflecting Cardell, Douglas and Brien’s (2018: 1) discussions about life writing ‘in difficult times’ as including the prevalence of trauma. In Campbell and Lefevre’s case, the trauma is death, loss and violence: Campbell’s father’s death, Lefevre’s loss of her adopted daughter, Campbell’s experience of sexual abuse and her mother’s tendency to be homophobic toward Campbell’s queer identity, and Lefevre’s experience of gender and class oppression (‘[W]hat did teenage girls in country towns want with Latin and French and art?’ [9]), inability to conceive and her close-hand experience of domestic violence.

In the 2004 innovative writing award in the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, the judges noted the characteristics of the shortlisted texts as the hybrid crossing of fiction and essay, life writing, memoir, and history (political, social and cultural); as lacking a ‘stable authorial centre’; as sensitivity ‘to the many, sometimes contradictory, dimensions of perspective’; and the movement through ‘a series of voices’ (Arts SA 2004). Both Lefevre and Campbell are historically conscious, referring to the Maralinga bomb tests in Lefevre’s case for example, and Communism, the CSIRO Radiophysics rain-making trials and the Royal Australian Airforce’s air-safety record in Campbell’s:

So much damage attends the phantasmagorical projection of old England onto Australia in the aftermath of colonial occupation, including Cloud Physics and rainmaking, called to rescue an ill-conceived agriculture – as life-giving as it might have willed itself then – in this country that for the at least fifty millennia supported the light footprints of nomadism. (Campbell 2018: 216)

Apart from hybridity, the contradictory perspectives and multiple voices are predominant in Campbell’s book. In exorbitant performativity, she ventriloquises both her mother’s and father’s speaking.

Campbell (2014) devoted a chapter to Castro’s work in her nonfiction text, Poetic Revolutionaries, discussing his intertextuality, hybridity and punning. Only one, mild example of Campbell’s parallel procedures is a response to a quote from The Tempest: ‘Yon … cloud … that would shed his liquor’. She mentions her own drinking as ‘I took in the liquor; but held it badly like yon cloud’ (158). This quote also refers to her father’s death in an attempt at cloud-seeding for the liquidity of rain.

Lefevre is equally stylish, particularly in her imagery: a ‘Wilcannia afternoon – hot and flat as the bottom of an iron (22); ‘I began this essay in the small wilderness of days between Christmas and New Year’ (122).

I always want to highlight what I think is a distinct moment in Australian literature – as, for example, van den Berg (2013) identifies Shanghai Dancing (Castro 2003) as ‘a milestone in the autobiographical space’. And Lefevre and Campbell’s books model a brave, exciting and inventive way to proceed. The books come from small, independent Australian presses, Spinifex and University of Western Australian Publishing, who – like Spineless Wonders, Giramondo, Brandl & Schlesinger, Seizure, Vagabond, Rochford Street Press and more – we can confidently rely on to produce the innovative, the ground-breaking, the distinct moment, the milestone.


Works Cited




Dr Moya Costello is a writer, and an Adjunct/Casual Lecturer, Schools of Arts and Social Sciences and Business and Tourism, Southern Cross University. Her scholarly and creative publications are in a range of journals and anthologies. She has four books of creative writing published: two of short creative prose (Kites in Jakarta and Small Ecstasies) and two novellas (The Office as a Boat and Harriet Chandler). She has been awarded writer’s grants, and fellowships, has been a Writer-in-Residence at Monash University, judged several writing competitions and been a guest at the Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast, Yamba, Bryon and Bellingen writers’ festivals.


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Vol 23 No 1 April 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker