Elaine Forrestal

Novels Do Not Lie

Elizabeth Macarthur, in her eighties

At the beginning of Kate Grenville’s new book, A Room Made of Leaves, the long awaited follow-up to The Secret River, the editor explains that ‘this book consists of recently rediscovered notes towards a memoir written by Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur, who is widely recognised as the founder of Australia’s wool industry.’

However, Kate Grenville’s Afterword proudly proclaims that this is a sham. ‘There is no box of secrets, found in the roof-space of Elizabeth Farm.’ Even though Mrs Macarthur spent much more time on the farm than her husband did and could easily have hidden her most personal and private  diaries and letters there. The author makes no apology. In fact she seems to relish the opportunity to thumb her nose at the hide-bound historians who have failed to recognise a truth that novelists have long acknowledged: ‘That all writers are liars. Biographies, by a necessary selection of facts, may be called lies. But novels do not lie. Having other purposes, a novel can effortlessly, even unconsciously, hold the truth in its shadows’ (Jessica Anderson, Sydney Morning Herald, 30th November 1996)

I know this is a favourite hobby-horse of mine, but I want to congratulate Kate Grenville on being brave enough to make this point unashamedly, in fact almost with glee.