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Bite Your Tongue, by Francesca Rendle-Short.

March 19, 2012

Bite Your Tongue, by Francesca Rendle-Short. Spinifex Press (2012), Paperback, 246 pages.
A review copy from Spinifex Press read on my Nook.

A fascinating, innovative memoir/novel about an Australian woman/girl whose mother burns books and convinces her that reading and writing can change reality.

Francesca Rendle-Short opens her book by introducing herself and her mother, Dr. Angel Rendle-Short, a woman deeply committed to banning and burning books. She believed herself on a mission from God to save all the children of Queensland from “smut.” At times, she involved Francesca in her flamboyant actions. As an adult, Francesca tracked down records of her mother’s words and, more importantly, tried to come to terms with her feeling about her.

The story was so hard to tell, however, that Francesca decided to “come at it obliquely, “give myself over to the writing with my face half turned; give my story over to some one else to tell.” So she created Glory Soldier, the fifth of six daughters of MotherJoy and Onward Soldier, and placed her in a family much like her own. Glory tells the story by moving back and forth between Big Glory, an adult who works in a bookstore and reads the books her mother wanted to destory, and Little Glory, the child and adolescent who had been closely bond to her mother. Sometimes Francesca herself narrates a chapter. Despite the changes from third to first person, she and Glory are so alike the transitions between them are almost seamless. Often Francesca provides photographs and documents by and about her mother from governmental and library archives, effectively displaying that this almost unbelievable story really happened.

Remarkably, for such a complexly structured story, Bite your Tongue, is a very accessible book, partly because Rendle-Short is such an impressive writer. Her prose is sharp and clear and extremely detailed. At times she is almost clinical, as when Glory describes how wonderful she feels singing hymns. Or the words are sensual, as when Francesca tells how her childhood bathing suit felt. Never explicitly sexual, Glory’s descriptions of her mother’s body are provocative.

Although the story of MotherJoy’s efforts to ban books is the obvious center of the book, Bite your Tongue is really more about Glory and Francesca attempting to deal with their mothers. Little Glory describing her childhood perceptions is sure that her mother needs protection. If she can only protect her mother, help her mother, then her mother will give her occasional bursts of love and attention. MotherJoy encourages this attitude, telling Glory that her daughters are her path to salvation. Looking back after 30 years, Big Glory still gets tongue-tied when she tries to deal with her mother. She has made a life for herself working in a bookstore and collecting the books on her mother’s “death list.” Poised and competent, her friends can’t understand how upset she gets about her mother. As the book progresses, she tries to show love for her mother and finally to separate herself from her mother’s power.

The relationship between Glory and MotherJoy is intense and dysfunctional. In comparison, my relationship with my own mother seems healthy and idyllic. Yet as I read, I resonated with Glory’s pain and ambiguity. What could she do to protect her mother’s vulnerability? How could she ward off her mother’s sudden distancing of herself? How could she free herself from her mother’s domination? Perhaps reading this book helped me exorcise some of the guilt, shame, and failure I still feel regarding my own mother. Although I believe authors of both genders should be able to imagine and write about any character, this is a book I find it difficult to believe a man could have written. It is simply too intimate and specific to the experience of women.

Bite your Tongue is set in a suburb of Brisbane in Queensland, Australia. Its factual grounding accentuates its Australian origin. Yet reading it in west Texas in 2012, I find it frighteningly easy to imagine such a story happening here.

Another pleasure for avid readers is Glory’s love of books and of writing. She tells us that both are fundamentally important and able to change the reality around her. She plays with words and images, taking apart their various meanings. Tongues appear and reappear; in mouths, prepared and cooked for as Glory’s favorite dinner, and according to MotherJoy, cut out of Christians’ mouths by Communists.

Spinifex is the Australian feminist press that published this book. They have been publishing for 21 years and have produced many innovative fiction and nonfiction books. In addition, they have been in the forefront in the creation of ebooks, a benefit for those of us that live half a world away. Check them out.

I highly recommend this book for all who were daughters and those who to understand us.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2012 2:45 am

    Terrific review, Marilyn
    Helen lobato Spinifex Press

  2. March 20, 2012 9:40 am

    Thanks. I look forward to reading and reviewing more Spinifex books in the future. Keep up your good work.

  3. March 24, 2012 5:15 pm

    A beautifully written review mdbrady. I can tell you liked it as much as I did.


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