Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 15, 2018

The Biographer’s Lover, by Ruby J Murray

Just as well I don’t do my Best Books of the Year until it’s almost the end of the year…If it’s not too late, put this one on your list for Santa.  Or beg for a book voucher to buy it…

The Biographer’s Lover is Ruby J. Murray’s second novel and I think it’s even better than her first, Running Dogs (2012) which was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s awards and earned Murray the accolade of SMH Best Young Novelist.

Judging by its ubiquity in blurbs for commercial (so-called) women’s fiction, ‘secrets’ and The Big Reveal are a mainstay in publishing and there is a well-worn route to the kind of ‘secrets’ on offer.  I would not have bought this book if ‘secrets’ had featured in its blurb so let me reassure readers that The Biographer’s Lover is not that kind of book, not at all. However I am going to be evasive about aspects of this most absorbing novel.  When you read it you will understand why.

Carefully constructed in alternating short chapters as part biography, part story of how the biography came to be written, the novel tells the story of a forgotten (entirely fictional) woman artist called Edna Cranmer and her nameless biographer.  When Edna dies, her daughter Victoria hires a ghost writer with a Master’s in art history to tell her story: the intention is to have Edna’s work recognised and the biography is part of a strategy to generate interest in the artist.

The biographer is down on her luck, writing dreary self-help books of the inane variety (’16 Tricks with Scarves’) and her agent sets up this project as a backdoor way of getting to write a sporting bio of Edna’s son Percy who is famous for playing football in AFL-mad Geelong.  The Sydney Olympics are in sight, and the market for books about (male) sporting heroes is about to take off.  Anne-Marie surmises that there would be more sales of a footy bio than one about a forgotten woman artist, and she is not best pleased when the biographer becomes intrigued by the project and sticks with it despite all kinds of problems, not the least of which is not having any money.

Murray’s descriptions of the art works convincingly establish this fictional Edna Cranmore as a great artist.   The first painting the biographer sees in Edna’s old studio is disappointing in its ordinariness, and she nearly turns away.  But then she sees ‘Morning II’:

… a bright, wild crash of empty field. Scattered red poppies in the rolling green, bursts about to move in an unseen wind. Delicate but violent, beautiful.  So detailed, so nearly real. Broken stones that disappeared into the long grass, and in the deep and shifting shade of the tree line, I thought I could make out figures, observing me observing them.  (p.19)

The paintings fall into two categories: controlled, jewel-like images.  Portraits and landscapes. Soldiers and nurses in uniform, people at work, in factories, on farms. And then there are dreamscapes: sprawling images that looked much closer to the work of the Antipodeans, paintings that held stories and hints and allusions.

Edna’s sketchbooks reveal a preoccupation with war:

I did not immediately recognise what I was looking at. Then the lines began resolving into torn bodies.  She had filled the whole sketchbook with them. […] There were no notes in the sketchbook, only the endless shredded men in her beautiful lines. (p.20)

Edna: whose work had been rejected by the Archibald Prize, whose application to be a war artist had failed, whose work had rarely been exhibited and had sold very little is a major talent. She could be the next Grace Cossington Smith, the biographer tells Edna’s husband Max.  This is the story that Victoria wants told, the story of a great artist unrecognised because she was a woman.

But biography is a slippery art.  Some members of the family are garrulous but ultimately unhelpful, while others are evasive and won’t even agree to be interviewed.  There is more to Edna’s experiences and preoccupations than the desired image of her as an artist neglected because of her gender.  In Nathan Hobby’s review of this novel, he describes the biographer’s purpose: a quest for truth of the subject’s life, often involving the recovery of lost letters or diaries — but here the letters are embargoed and diaries don’t exist.  Victoria wants her mother’s life told through her artworks, and she puts up road blocks to steer the biographer in the intended direction.

Curiosity, however, is part of a biographer’s armoury, and with the sale of her few treasured possessions, the biographer gets to France to discover a crucial part of the jigsaw.  There is then an ethical question to be tackled, one which bedevils every biographer and memoirist.  Truth often leaves hurt victims in its wake, and the deteriorating relationship with the members of Edna’s family muddies the biographer’s motivations.  Part of this excellent novel’s trajectory is the biographer’s coming of age: coming to terms with her childhood and adolescence in a provincial city; her limp relationship with her widowed mother; her habit of judging other women by the clothes they wear; her own failed marriage and her denial of her Ex’s perfidy.

But in a nation obsessed with selective remembrance, it is the denial of certain truths about war that Murray exposes through Edna’s artwork with startling clarity.  The narrative references events in the 1980s (which I remember) that have since been wholly suppressed by the remembrance industry.  Our national myths are sacrosanct.  Ultimately, it is the question of why we have allowed that to happen, and what we should do about discomfiting truths, that will engross book groups, I suspect!

Helen Sullivan at the SMH admired it too.  See also Nathan’s review at A Biographer in Perth

Author: Ruby J. Murray
Title: The Biographer’s Lover
Publisher: Black Inc, 2018, 288 pages
ISBN: 9781863959421
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore $29.99
Available from Fishpond: The Biographer’s Lover and you can also buy the eBook for $12.99 from Black Inc Books where there are also book group questions.


  1. I’ve been hearing good things about this book – including Nathan’s post. Sounds right up our alley.


  2. […] The Biographer’s Lover by Ruby J Murray […]


  3. Glad you liked it too – deserves a wide readership.


    • Yes, it does. There’s so much more to it than I’ve been able to convey in this review, I want my f2f friends to read it soon so that I can talk about it and the issues it raises…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes – even things like its depiction of football culture!


        • And those nostalgic references to our vanished car industry. I’ve known people who were in love with their cars like that, though they were Holden Toranas, not Fords…

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve shied away not only from “secrets” but also titles such as this with “somebody’s something”. BUT since you recommend it, I’m putting it on my list. Do you think the fact that I’m familiar with ’80s Canadian culture, but not Australian, will diminish my enjoyment of the book?


    • No, not at all, I think. You will enjoy the depiction of a regional city much as I’ve enjoyed depictions of cities in Canada, which I have yet to visit. (I long to do that train journey that crosses the Rockies!) But besides that, it’s the issues it raises about biography (which Nathan explores more fully in his review) that makes this a book that will resonate wherever it’s read.


  5. You must be more persuasive than Nathan. I’ll put a copy in Milly’s stocking which means I should get to read it around March.


    • An excellent Xmas-gift strategy!
      Does she do the same for you?


      • In a word, No. We have entirely different present-giving strategies, and she tends to wait until there’s something I need or can use.


        • My family gave up on giving me books a long time ago, in the not entirely unfounded belief that I would probably always have the books I wanted to have. My parents tried Dymocks vouchers (because that was the only bookshop they knew on the Gold Coast) but D’s doesn’t have the kind of books I like to read so I used to use them for books for my perennially underfunded school library.


          • You’ve reminded me I have an unspent Dymocks voucher lying around. The nearest stores are in uncongenial shopping centres, but I’d better go and spend it.


            • And that’s another thing: the vouchers used to expire. I hate that, and can’t see any rational reason for it. Someone has bought and paid for it, so it should last forever, even if the rate of inflation devalues what it was worth in the first place.


          • Dymocks here isn’t totally hopeless – I don’t go to it much because it’s on the other side of town and because I have good independents nearer by, but last time I went it had a decent collection of contemporary books that were featuring in the major local and overseas awards. I didn’t find it hard to spend my voucher. QBD is another thing. I can have quite a deal of trouble there so I groan inwardly if I’m given one of their vouchers, which has only happened twice.


            • I think Dymocks, like some other chain stores, stocks different stuff in different places, depending on what their competition is. The Dymocks that’s closest to me is in one of those horrible shopping malls, and I guess they know their customer base so they stock predictable bestsellers, crime, food, beauty and health, boxed set of Harry Potter and so on. (Or they did last time I was there, which is a good while ago now!)

              But it makes sense as their marketing strategy because customers like me have what we want at Benn’s Bookshop in Bentleigh, Top Titles in Brighton, Ulysses in Sandringham, Beaumaris Books in Beaumaris, and until recently a good indie bookshop in Hampton too. There’s also, a little further afield, The Avenue Bookshop in Caulfield, and The Grumpy Swimmer in Elwood. (And Readings Online, of course). So we are spoilt for choice really, it’s just that my parents couldn’t access any of these to buy a gift voucher.


  6. OK you sold me on this though it isn’t going to happen in time for Christmas….. I shall just have to make it a post Christmas present to myself….. providing I can find a copy at a reasonable price. I’m in agreement with you about books which turn on ‘secrets’ being revealed by someone from a later generation/period.


    • If you can’t get a copy in Britain, let me know and I’ll have a copy for you when we meet up next year – I owe you one, remember?


  7. […] J Murray had been sorely overlooked by critics and hoped that it would make the list (check out the review at ANZ LitLovers), and I recommended he read Staying by Jessie […]


  8. […] J Murray’s The Biographer’s Lover, see my review and also my review of Running […]


  9. […] The Biographer’s Lover by Ruby J Murray, see my review This elegant and engrossing novel asks how we value and celebrate art and artists’ […]


  10. […] In summary, if you like a book with careful and intricate plot structure, one that unravels the past, and has a little twist at the end, then The Biographer’s Lover is for you. Check out Lisa’s glowing review. […]


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