Finding Theodore and Brina



review by Molly Travers





Finding Theodore and Brina
Terri-ann White
Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2001
232pp, $19.95rrp
ISBN 1 86368 337 2


I feel it is presumptuous to review a book written by someone who writes so much better than I do. However, there are two reasons for my interest in Finding Theodore and Brina. I am writing a biography of a female ancestor born in 1869. Because of a lack of personal material, I need a structure and style that will make her story interesting to others. I have read widely in search of a model. I have yet to find one. And secondly, I teach mature graduate students who write autobiography that includes family biography, so I read hundreds of attempts to recreate a family portrait gallery. Students look, as one would expect, at faulty memory and family myths and secrets, and follow up sources of information in houses, archives and family interviews. Their reading includes other auto/biographies, history and novels written about the period. They need to consider style and structure, and whether to include themselves, and how much to make up.

These are the writer's concerns. I admire Terri-ann White's varied writing style. I cannot fault it (except for a personal objection to her contemporary use of 'like', now accepted by even the Oxford Dictionary). I am impressed by her inventive structuring of her material, wandering from character to character, away and back again like a haunting musical theme, interspersed with undemanding historical facts and views of contemporary Perth, its early settlement and its attitudes, particularly to the Aborigines, Jews and convicts. Nor does White indulge in the detachment that academics are expected to pretend. I enjoy her fictional recreations of people, their thoughts and details of events in which they are involved, and I appreciate the inclusion of sources for these recreations.

I was interested in the use of often mystifying sub-headings, and what Elizabeth Jolly calls 'sophisticated spaces' between paragraphs. White uses the space after every paragraph, and one paragraph may lead directly on to the next, but not necessarily so. She uses '~' if a more conscious space is indicated. I like the way White includes herself and her own feelings during her tireless searches of archives and interviews in pursuit of her family's secrets of lunacy, poverty, criminality and shameful pregnancy, along with their determination to survive in conditions which White describes in vivid and often repulsive detail. These are my reactions as a writer and teacher of writing.

This comes to my reaction as a reader. I did find the book difficult to persist with, both in style and structure. I was never quite sure where I was. Just as I became involved in one character, we drifted away to another or to general reflections on some question or attitude or fact. Some documentation or invented documentation was repetitive, even if the repetition was part of the tedious or frustrating event. Brina's letters to the authorities about paying to keep her husband in the Lunatic Asylum, are one example; the fictional account of Brina's voyage out from Plymouth in 1852 based on other contemporary diaries is another. I found the changes in style an interruption, even though I admired that skill and understood the reason. I was certainly left with a hazy picture of Perth in the past, and of a variety of men and women struggling for survival up and down the coast of Western Australia and on the gold fields. Perhaps this is the way it should be. Our conception of the past can only be mysterious, nightmarish or dreamlike, even in our own memories, however sharp we feel them to be. But that doesn't make for satisfying reading; we look for recreations.

As an academic, I am grateful for the Bibliography and the discreet footnotes, and the Appendices with some of the existing documentary evidence. Perhaps I read too many theses, where candidates are exhorted to tell examiners where they're going and where they've been because examiners read under duress, not for pleasure, and don't want to read the entire thesis twice if they can help it. Or perhaps I'm reading too much fictional biography, where the writer wants to give the reader a good story, a good read.

When I had finished the book to the end, including the Acknowledgements and the inner back dust cover listing White's other publications, I felt embarrassed at having found the story so hard to persist with. I can only think that I was looking for a different type of biography or family history. My university has a large collection of privately published family histories in the library, and their discreet and simple chronologies make them unexciting reading. White's approach is original, and challenging. Given the high reputation of the Fremantle Arts Centre Press for publishing experimental work of quality, I should have known what to expect. If I, and the friend to whom I lent the book for a second opinion, found it too demanding a read, the fault is ours, not the writer's.




D. Molly Travers, La Trobe University teaches autobiography in the La Trobe University Media Dept's Grad.Dip.Professional Writing. She has published short stories in two anthologies and in Quadrant, and in various women's magazines under a pen-name, and free-lanced for The Age. She has many academic publications,
and two text books on poetry and public speaking. She is at present working on a novel in Provence and a biography of Melian Stawell.

Terri-Ann White's Finding Theodore and Brina is also reviewed in this issue by Donna Lee Brien.

In October 1997 Terri-ann White published an early extract of this work in TEXT.




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Vol 5 No 2 October 2001
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady