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Can You Hear the Sea?

Can You Hear the Sea?: My Grandmother’s Story

Brenda Niall

Brenda Niall has turned her biographer’s eye to a personal subject—her grandmother, Aggie. She tells the story of a fiercely independent and intelligent woman who braved a new country as a single woman, teaching in a country school, before marrying a Riverina grazier, whose large powerful family was wary of the newcomer with ideas of her own.

Aggie dealt with hardships and loneliness after the early and drawn-out death of her husband, and brought up her seven children to be happy—all with a calm determination. But it was the memory box and her longing for the sea that captured the imagination of her granddaughter.  

ABC Radio National, BooksPlus


Australian Book Review 
Eureka Street 
Australian ($) 
Saturday Paper 
Sydney Morning Herald 

Read an extract in Inside Story

Brenda Niall
About the Author

Brenda Niall is one of Australia’s foremost biographers. She is the author of several award-winning biographies, including her acclaimed accounts of the Boyd family and her portrait of the Durack sisters, True North. In 2016 she won the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal and the National Biography Award for Mannix. In 2004 she was...

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30 October 2017
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Praise for Brenda Niall
andCan You Hear the Sea?

‘Niall’s skill is to listen with a discerning ear, to acknowledge the views and to seek always the social, political and historical context and influences. Her craft as a skilled biographer gives her grandmother a fresh life, one that will resonate with many in families of similar background, but wider than that, provide another piece in the picture of the European settlement of Australasia.’

‘Agnes’s story charts the changing role of women in the colonies, the impact of the world wars and the rise and fall of family fortunes…Niall’s beautifully told tale will have echoes in thousands of other Australian families.’

‘An affectionate tribute to someone who quietly but firmly shaped her own place in the world.’

Can You Hear the Sea? creates a portrait, from other kinds of evidence, of a woman whose silence sealed her most intimate moments. With a light touch, Niall looks at her grandmother’s life through the prism of the imaginative world in which she was immersed…Aggie’s is a story of independence and grit: understated, necessary, uncelebrated.’

‘A fascinating subject…Hopefully people still find ways to write biographies that so adeptly capture the particularity of lived experience.’


‘Aggies gift of the shell and the empty box put two questions to Brenda Niall. They also addressed her craft and her desire. Could she recreate the sounds and feel of the past out of unpromising materials, and could she fill the empty box while recognising that it remained empty? This book answers both questions with assurance. One might hope that among the next generation of Aggie’s descendants another young person will hear in it the sea that flows into story telling.’

‘Niall’s beautifully told tale will have echoes in thousands of other Australian families.’

‘Gentle and engaging biography…Aggie was undoubtedly a remarkable and intelligent woman, and this book is a lovely testament to her life.’

‘[Niall] is clear about her process, asking questions, noting gaps, offering her own memories with an easy blend of intimacy and distance, in an authoritative yet conversational voice…Niall writes with respect for a woman who built a dynasty across centuries, was adventurous and stable, traditional and ahead of her time, English and embodied the best of Australia.’

‘Brenda Niall has written perceptively about the different but complementary personalities of Mary and Elizabeth Durack. She has done the two sisters proud in this splendid and informative work.’

‘Brenda Niall, the distinguished biographer of the novelist Martin Boyd and author of a swag of other books, has written a fond and fluent life of Mannix that captures the crispness and the passion, the humour and the enigma of the man who meddled with politics like a master magician.’

‘Few other writers have such an ability to understand and describe the relationships that create the characters of her subjects. [A] beautiful and mellow story…[with] a vibrant narrative energy.’

Other editions ofCan You Hear the Sea?
  • Can You Hear the Sea?
    ISBN: 9781925410990
    30 October 2017
    Buy ebook