Grenville, Kate 1950-

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Grenville, Kate 1950-


Born October 14, 1950, in Sydney, Australia; daughter of Kenneth Grenville (a lawyer) and Isobel (a teacher) Gee; married Bruce Petty (an editorial cartoonist); children: Tom, Alice. Education: University of Sydney, B.A. (with honors), 1972; University of Colorado, M.A., 1982. Hobbies and other interests: Learning to play the cello.


Agent—c/o Barbara Mobbs, P.O. Box 126, Edgecliff, New South Wales 2027, Australia.


Writer. Australia Council (arts administration), Sydney, staff member, 1973-74; Film Australia, Sydney, worked in documentary film production, 1974-77; freelance film editor and writer in London, England, 1974-80; Multicultural TV, Sydney, subeditor, 1983-85. Script consultant for the Australian films Sleeping Partner and Bronco. Former writer in residence at University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, and Macquarie University; teacher of creative writing at University of Colorado, University of Technology, Sydney, and Australian Film, Television, and Radio School.


Australian Society of Authors.


Fellowship from International Association of University Women, 1981; Australia Council, grant, 1983, writer's fellowship, 1985; Australian/Vogel Award, 1985, and Talking Book of the Year Award, 1986, both for Lilian's Story; Victorian Premier's Prize, 1995, for Dark Places; Orange Prize for Fiction, 2001, for The Idea of Perfection; Commonwealth Writers' Prize for the South East Asia and South Pacific region, and Commonwealth Writers' Prize for overall best book, both 2006, both for The Secret River.


Bearded Ladies (short stories), University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia), 1984.

Lilian's Story (novel), Allen & Unwin (North Sydney, Australia), 1985, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.

Dreamhouse (novel), University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia), 1986, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.

Joan Makes History (novel), British American Publishers (Latham, NY), 1988.

The Writing Book: A Workbook for Fiction Writers, Allen & Unwin (North Sydney, Australia), 1990.

(Editor, with Sue Woolfe, and contributor) Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written, Allen & Unwin (North Sydney, Australia), 1993.

Albion's Story (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1994, published as Dark Places, Picador (Sydney, Australia), 1994.

The Idea of Perfection (novel), Picador (Sydney, Australia), 1999.

Writing from Start to Finish: A Six-Step Guide, Allen & Unwin (Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia), 2001.

The Secret River (novel), Text Publishers (Melbourne, Australia), 2005.

Searching for The Secret River (memoir), Text Publishers (Melbourne, Australia), 2006.


The novel Dreamhouse was adapted for the screen and released as a film in 1992; the novel Lilian's Story was adapted for the screen and released as a film in 1996.


"Like her heroines," observed Norman Oder in Publishers Weekly, "Australian novelist Kate Grenville has learned to confront convention. She hasn't just questioned sex roles in the land of ‘blokes.’ She's also resisted the rules of storytelling—at least, the former rules—that long stifled her voice." Grenville is best known for her satirical feminist novels and short stories, which look at poor relationships between men and women, many of them based on power rather than love and affection. She uses language inventively, relying more on short vignettes, dialogue, and imagery rather than narration—a technique she may have derived from the years she worked as a film editor. She also has a strong sense of Australian history, revealed in Joan Makes History, and the relationship between literature and history. "Grenville possesses a rare and beautiful gift for words," wrote Constance Markey in the Chicago Tribune Books, "a delicacy of description, and an awareness of nature rare to present-day fiction. These qualities, plus an abiding intuition of life's eternal conflicts, distinguish her as a writer of great strength and sensitivity."

Grenville's first published work was the collection Bearded Ladies. Many of the stories in the book are experimental in form. "When I left Australia and started writing seriously," Grenville stated in an interview with Gerry Turcotte of Southerly magazine, "I felt that there were huge gaps in human experience—female experience—that had never been written about, and that there was no way you could write about them in conventional terms. It somehow just wasn't adequate to talk about them in terms of the conventional, and in nice neat language. The forces operating—anger, frustration, pain, loneliness—couldn't be written about truthfully in neatly ordered fiction." The completed volume, accord- ing to Oder, "shows her testing form, voice and narrative." Bearded Ladies is, commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "a collection to be savored as much for the colloquial ease of the writing as for the hypocrisy it exposes."

Some reviewers found a strong feminist ideology in Bearded Ladies. The "bearded ladies" of the title are, according to Joanna Motion in the Times Literary Supplement, "contemporary Australian women … who find themselves out of step with their surroundings and respond by slipping away from other people's expectations." Similar comments came from other reviewers. "The ‘ladies’ we meet are bearded by virtue of their personalities and pursuits," wrote the Publishers Weekly critic, "the soft skin of their femininity roughened with the effort of moving away from conventional behavior and expectations." They travel to exotic locations, to Italy and India, only to encounter the same oppressive concepts. "Bearded Ladies is the sort of angry place where feminism actually begins, when you suddenly see how the world is really working," Grenville told Turcotte, "which is why I was obsessed with that sort of photographic clarity—people must know this is what's really happening underneath the nice rhetoric of romance."

Lilian's Story, Grenville's first published novel, takes a deeper look at a woman's attempts to escape from other people's expectations. Loosely based on a street person named Bee Miles, who roamed the streets of Sydney, Australia, during the middle of the twentieth century, "She grows up loud and fat and unladylike," explained Margaret Walters in the London Observer, "acutely aware that she doesn't fit in. All her attempts to escape—to make friends, to take pleasure in her own body—are blocked by her sadistic bully of a father." Lilian Singer remains committed to her individuality, quoting Shakespeare loudly in public after her father rapes her and has her shut up for ten years in an insane asylum. "She has remained herself through all vicissitudes," wrote James Purdy in the New York Times Book Review, "unrepentant, in her own way victorious."

Dreamhouse paints quite a different portrait of a trapped woman. Louise Dufrey is a secretary, slender and beautiful, who moves to the Italian countryside for a season with her husband Rennie so he can complete his doctoral dissertation. The villa (which belongs to Daniel, a friend of Louise's husband) turns out to be a decaying monstrosity, infested with mice and birds. "The state of the villa," wrote Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Judith Freeman, "can aptly be said to be a metaphor for the state of their marriage—pretty crumbly." Soon Louise and Rennie are forced to move in with Daniel's grown children, Hugo and Viola, next door. "With a less talented writer," commented Hariclea Zengos in Belles Lettres, "Dreamhouse could have been yet another ordinary novel concerning the dissolution of a marriage. But with Grenville nothing is ever ordinary; small yet significant details betray her extraordinary talent as a novelist."

In Joan Makes History, Grenville "employs a highly imaginative splicing technique to weave a double plot," observed Elizabeth Ward in the Washington Post Book World. "The story of a contemporary Australian Joan, born to an immigrant couple in 1901, the year of Federation, whose life is narrowed down by successive hard choices; and, alternating with hers, the stories of a whole string of historical Joans, whom the modern Joan either dreams, imagines or remembers (it doesn't matter which, the point being that Joan, like Whitman, contains multitudes)." Other critics also commented on Grenville's use of numerous "Joan" characters. "Their stories make one story, told in different voices," stated New York Times Book Review contributor Nancy Willard. "This is really more a collection of stories connected by the idea that we are reading history from the perspective of the women who never make the history books, the ones who cooked dinner, washed socks, and swept floors, those ‘who will melt away like mud when they die,’" explained Los Angeles Times contributor Judith Freeman. "The history of the world is the male version. It seems perfect that Grenville has made Joan not an individual but an archetype of the ‘whole tribe of humanity keeping the generations flowing along,’ the women and the workers."

Grenville returns to the Singer family of Sydney in Albion's Story, published in Australia as Dark Places, which tells how Lilian's father became the sort of person to abuse his daughter. "Albion Gidley Singer properly graduates from son to husband to father, and becomes a thriving businessman, ‘always a gentleman,’" stated Lynn Knight in the Times Literary Supplement. "This solid figure is tormented by the fear that he will be exposed as a mere ‘husk,’ a ‘hollow shell.’ From childhood, Albion has rebuffed this image by pursuing an encyclopedic knowledge of facts: with his sexual initiation he discovers that he can merge his inner and outer selves in the ‘blossoming epiphany’ of orgasm. This temporary satisfaction immediately induces the emptiness he dreads, locking him in a cycle of craving." Knight concluded, "In Albion Gidley Singer, Grenville has created the supreme misogynist." Critics in the United States also found much merit in Grenville's novel. "The author explores every avenue here," wrote Carolyn See in the Washington Post. "Was Albion simply a repressed homosexual? Was he the oppressed product of the late-Victorian patriarchy or just terrified by the sexual folklore of the day? Having deprived himself of his family's affection, was he forced to commit an awful act just to make an impression on them? Or did cosmic loneliness force him to live as a sociopath, absolutely unable to think of anyone's feelings but his own?"

Grenville won Britain's Orange Prize with The Idea of Perfection, a work acclaimed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. The tale of an unlikely romance between two very ordinary people and set in an outback Australian town, The Idea of Perfection was a "delicious comic novel," according to a critic for Kirkus Reviews, as well as a "cockeyed romance" that is set in motion when the protagonists are thrust together in the debate over destruction of a local bridge. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly, however, found the novel "uneven … sometimes dazzlingly lyrical, compassionate and smart, but occasionally arch and rather clumsy." Booklist contributor Carol Haggas had no such reservations, though, calling the novel a "richly textured, warmly wry portrait of quixotic characters longing for acceptance." Similarly, an Atlantic Monthly reviewer noted that The Idea of Perfection was "an amusing and moving story of unlikely love, but one could read it just to marvel at Grenville's astounding writing."

Grenville won another prestigious award, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2006, for her sixth novel, The Secret River, a "powerful novel, which grapples with the maltreatment of aboriginal people by the white settlers in Australia in the 19th century," according to Anita Sethi, writing in the New Statesman. The story focuses on London petty criminal William Thornhill, who is sentenced to death in 1806 for stealing wood. Given the opportunity to escape the hangman, he does so by being transported to Australia. The resulting novel, which follows Thornhill from transported criminal to law-abiding landowner in Australia, is a "riveting narrative [that] unfolds into a chilling allegory of the mechanics and the psychology of colonialism," according to a Kirkus Reviews critic. Further praise came from a Publishers Weekly contributor, who found the novel "an eye-opening tale of the settlement of New South Wales," and from Booklist reviewer Ellen Loughran, who thought The Secret River was an "accomplished novel." Likewise, Tina Jordan, writing in Entertainment Weekly, found the book "absorbing." Grenville was quoted in the magazine Meanjin on the historical background for her tale: "I did an enormous amount of research for this book. The Secret River isn't history but it's based solidly on history: just about everything in the book really happened and much of the dialogue is what people really said or wrote."

Grenville also writes guides for other writers. In Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written, she and Sue Woolfe solicited commentary from prominent Australian authors and compiled the discussions regarding the writing process into a guideline for others. The contributors mention the trials and tribulations of the creative process and the mechanics of turning ideas and notes into polished manuscripts. In a review of Making Stories for Australian Library Journal, Deborah A. Cronau recommended the work as "rewarding and entertaining."

In Writing from Start to Finish: A Six-Step Guide, Grenville presents her own approach to the writing process, which she divides into six elements—getting ideas, choosing, outlining, drafting, revising, and editing, plus a miscellaneous category. Grenville claims that her process works equally well for fiction as it does for the essay form. She creates sample assignments in both categories and allows the reader to observe her progress from beginning to end. Writing from Start to Finish, a work recommended by Kliatt contributor Anthony J. Pucci to middle and high school students, also includes numerous hints, charts, checklists, and other aids.

Grenville once told CA: "I started writing because I was struggling to understand how to be a woman in the 1960s and 1970s—the heady years of the women's movement. I had no message, nothing to preach: I wanted just to lay out contemporary sexual politics for examination and satire, not to suggest answers but to show things as they really were. I also wanted to do something more stylistically and formally interesting than the kind of social realism—sociology masquerading as fiction—that the women's movement was producing so much of. I wanted to dignify the dilemmas of contemporary women by making them into art (whatever, exactly, that might be).

"Now I write for the excitement of discovery. It seems that I can only find out most of what I think or feel in the process of writing. To paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, I only know what I think after I've said it. The process of writing is therefore one of constant surprise. In many ways the pleasure of writing is the same as the pleasure of reading: the suspense of not knowing what the next page might reveal. These days I feel privileged to be a woman and a writer because centuries of comparative silence by women means that for us, today, there are still enormous areas of women's experience and sensibility that have hardly been touched on in fiction. The more I write about women, the more I feel I understand about men as well, and I feel a tremendous compassion for all of us, locked into our different systems.

"The other impulse that keeps me writing is the delight of style and form. Each new fictional project presents a new challenge and demands the invention of a style and shape that is precisely and individually made to fit that particular work. Since I never feel I get it absolutely 100 percent right, the lure or goad of unattainable perfection keeps me going."



Atlantic Monthly, June, 2002, review of The Idea of Perfection, pp. 112-113.

Australian Book Review, September, 1999, Don Anderson, "How to Make an Australian Quilt," pp. 31-32.

Australian Library Journal, February, 2002, Deborah A. Cronau, review of Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written, p. 75.

Belles Letters, July-August, 1988, Hariclea Zengos, review of Dreamhouse, p. 5.

Booklist, March 15, 2002, Carol Haggas, review of The Idea of Perfection, p. 1210; April 15, 2006, Ellen Loughran, review of The Secret River, p. 36.

Entertainment Weekly, April 28, 2006, Tina Jordan, review of The Secret River, p. 141.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2002, review of The Idea of Perfection, p. 123; March 15, 2006, review of The Secret River, p. 252.

Kliatt, September, 2002, Anthony J. Pucci, review of Writing from Start to Finish: A Six-Step Guide, p. 29.

Library Journal, April 1, 2002, Maureen Neville, review of The Idea of Perfection, p. 138; April 1, 2006, Evelyn Beck, review of The Secret River, p. 82.

Los Angeles Times, December 18, 1988, Judith Freeman, review of Joan Makes History, p. 9; November 17, 1994, p. E9.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 22, 1987, Judith Freeman, review of Dreamhouse, p. 13.

M2 Best Books, March 15, 2006, "2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize Won by Kate Grenville."

Meanjin, March, 2006, Eleanor Collins, "Poison in the Flour," review of The Secret River, p. 38.

New Statesman, February 13, 2006, Anita Sethi, review of The Secret River, p. 55.

New York Times Book Review, September 7, 1986, James Purdy, review of Lilian's Story, p. 27; December 18, 1988, Nancy Willard, review of Joan Makes History, pp. 7, 9.

Observer (London, England), September 14, 1986, Margaret Walters, review of Lilian's Story, p. 27; April 3, 1988, p. 42.

Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, FL), May 3, 2002, Jean Patteson, review of The Idea of Perfection.

Publishers Weekly, November 23, 1984, review of Bearded Ladies, p. 67; August 29, 1994, review of Albion's Story, p. 61; October 31, 1994, Norman Oder, interview with Kate Grenville, pp. 40-41; March 4, 2002, review of The Idea of Perfection, p. 54; March 27, 2006, review of The Secret River, p. 54.

Southerly, Volume 47, number 3, 1987, interview by Gerry Turcotte, pp. 284-299.

Spectator, June 16, 2001, Francis Henry King, review of The Idea of Perfection, p. 41; February 11, 2006, Charlotte Moore, review of The Secret River, p. 41.

Times Literary Supplement, October 18, 1985, Joanna Motion, review of Bearded Ladies, p. 1173; September 2, 1994, Lynn Knight, review of Albion's Story, p. 11.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 8, 1987, Constance Markey, review of Joan Makes History, p. 5.

Washington Post, October 14, 1994, Carolyn See, review of Albion's Story, p. F2.

Washington Post Book World, November 20, 1988, Elizabeth Ward, review of Joan Makes History, p. 7.

World Literature Today, autumn, 1995, Carolyn Bliss, review of Albion's Story, p. 866.


Allen & Unwin Web site, (September 23, 2006), "Allen & Unwin Authors: Kate Grenville."

Kate Grenville Home Page, (September 23, 2006).

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Grenville, Kate 1950-

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