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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Tales of a Father-Daughter Battle of Wills : LILIAN'S STORY by Kate Grenville ; Harvest Books $10.95, 228 pages : ALBION'S STORY by Kate Grenville ; Harcourt Brace $21.95, 384 pages

November 17, 1994|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Published eight years apart, these two novels by the Australian writer Kate Grenville deal with the same family but are told from the different perspectives of father and daughter. "Lilian's Story," a remarkable journey from childhood to madness, begins with Lilian's birth "on a wild night in the year of Federation," 1901, when the sparsely settled continent remained more stultifyingly Victorian than England itself. Writing in the first person, the author has succeeded in capturing every nuance of that era, re-creating a repressive world defined by empty ritual and hollow pretense, a milieu in which Lilian will never fit.

The daughter of a browbeaten mother who has taken refuge from her bleak marriage in hypochondria, and the domineering and pompous father who will attempt to justify himself in "Albion's Story," Lilian is at odds with her world from infancy. A large, intellectually precocious child, she resists every attempt to turn her into the prevailing vapid and docile image of Australian womanhood. Her mother despairs, but her father exploits her, stuffing her full of his beloved "facts" until she becomes a performing savant, an oddity among her contemporaries.

Excruciatingly conscious of the tensions in her family, Lilian attempts to please her mother and win the love of her father, a desire she's constitutionally unable to fulfill. By age 5, she's learned that she can insulate herself from her parents' dissatisfaction physically if not emotionally. Deliberately overeating, Lilian becomes fat, cushioning herself within her own body. By the time she's an adolescent, she's succeeded in exempting herself from the social conventions she's come to despise. Recognizing that Lilian is unlikely to marry, her father allows her the then-extraordinary privilege of attending university, where she feels relatively free and for the first time in her life, finds kinder spirits.

One way and another, her new-found friends betray and disappoint her, and her attempts to escape the confines of her life take increasingly radical forms. There is a proposal of marriage, but Lilian recognizes that her suitor is even more of a lost soul than she herself, though his love for her is both deep and genuine. She embarks upon a phase of "running wild," spending nights aimlessly wandering barefoot through the countryside. "My feet hardened quickly . . . renewed themselves endlessly. Such hide was enviable. I wondered if it could be encouraged to form all over a body such as mine, that had such need of armor."

Enraged by his daughter's defiance and determined to break her rebellious spirit, her father rapes her, an act that has horrendous consequences. Unable to endure the sight of Lilian thereafter, Albion has her committed to a mental hospital, where she will spend the next 10 years. Finally discharged through the efforts of her affectionate, alcoholic aunt, Lilian emerges from the institution totally unable to integrate herself into the world she'd fled. Instead, she lives on the streets and in the parks, accepting total alienation as the price of liberty. There's an interlude in prison, followed by incarceration in a shelter, a haven from which Lilian flees in a taxi, "Drive on, George, I cried at him. I am ready for whatever comes next." A powerful paean to individuality, "Lilian's Story" astounds the reader with style and substance.

"Albion's Story" is equally amazing: a tour de force in which the author speaks in the voice of the despicable Albion Singer, a pompous, smug and hypocritical man who fascinates even as he repels the reader. Utterly hollow, a man who studies others in order to memorize and imitate their reactions; a man seemingly devoid of human feeling, Albion manages to impersonate a successful businessman, a husband and a father, fooling the rest of the world but never himself or his family.

Instead of intellect, he has "facts." In place of love, only lust. He treats his once winsome wife and his frail son with utter contempt, and drives the genuinely brilliant Lilian literally out of her mind. His story is not only a marvelous description of Australian society at the beginning of the 20th Century, but an extraordinary account of combat between the indomitable wills of father and daughter, a battle that forces us to redefine notions of victory. As Albion dies, not a moment too soon, "The nothingness within had rushed to join the nothingness without, and the empty husk was collapsing into itself." Only a remarkable writer could make a vile character so compelling. Albion is loathsome but entirely comprehensible.

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