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Georgia Francis Blain (1964–2016)

by Jane Gleeson-White

from Sydney Morning Herald

Australian writer Georgia Blain died on December 9, two days before her 52nd birthday. She had been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer in November 2015. Acclaimed as a novelist, short story writer and essayist who transformed the everyday into works of extraordinary beauty and clarity, Blain was also widely known – in her work as in her life – for her honesty, her warmth and outrageous humour, which tended to black. For two decades her writing has been published in Australia and internationally, including in her favourite British journal, Granta. Her latest novel for adults, Between a Wolf and a Dog, won the 2016 Queensland Literary Award for fiction and has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards.

Blain was born in Sydney in 1964. Her mother was the broadcaster, filmmaker and writer Anne Deveson; her father the prominent ABC broadcaster Ellis Blain. Compounding the tragedy of Georgia's death, her mother died three days later on December 12. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2014. Georgia grew up with her two brothers, Jonathan and Joshua, in bookish households in Sydney, Tuscany and Adelaide, and seems destined to become a writer. 

Her teenage years in Adelaide were racked by her older brother Jonathan's schizophrenia and suicide aged 24. Deveson's devastating memoir of her son's decline, Tell Me I'm Here (1991), includes poetry by Blain. These early poems show her prodigious ability to transform the tumult of her life into lucid words. They also attest to her extraordinary bond with her mother.

Mother-daughter relationships were central to Blain's life and work. In her autobiographical collection Births, Deaths and Marriages: True Tales, she writes about her own birth under a full moon. Blain was late. To avoid an induction, her mother communed with her unborn daughter, willing her to come. According to her mother, Blain listened: 'out I came, quickly, easily, slipping out in the moonlight'. Even as an unborn child, she was clever, capable and willing.

Blain shot into the limelight of Australia's literary scene with equal rapidity, understanding and apparent ease. After completing her bachelor of arts degree at the University of Adelaide, Blain returned to Sydney in the late 1980s where she finished her law degree at the University of Sydney. She then worked as a journalist before landing a job in 1990 as a lawyer with the Australian Copyright Council.

Four years later Blain took the plunge, giving up full-time employment to dedicate herself to writing. With her formidable focus and self-discipline, she soon finished a draft of her first novel, Closed for Winter. In 1996 the draft earned her an Australian Society of Authors' mentorship with Rosie Scott. The mentorship would change Blain's writing life – and begin a lifelong and mutually supportive friendship. Among other things, Scott suggested Blain switch her narrative from third person to first person. When Blain experimented with this, her characters sprang to life. She later said she didn't think she could have finished this first novel without Scott's guidance.

Closed for Winter was published in 1998, the same year Blain gave birth to Odessa, her daughter with partner Andrew Taylor. Set on the wintry coast of Adelaide, Closed for Winter is a haunting story of grief told by a young woman whose older sister vanished 20 years earlier. It became a bestseller and Blain was named as one of the Sydney Morning Herald's Best Young Novelists in 1999. It was an astonishing debut. And it was followed almost immediately by her second novel, the widely acclaimed Candelo (1999). Blain continued with her prolific writing ways, publishing two more novels for adults – The Blind Eye (2003) and Names for Nothingness (2004) – before extending her reach to young adults with the crime thriller Darkwater in 2010.

As part of her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Sydney, in 2008 Blain published Births, Deaths and Marriages: True Tales. It was shortlisted for the 2009 Nita B. Kibble Literary Award. As if to signal her new ease with writing from her own life, her next book was a novel called Too Close to Home (2011) set in Sydney's inner west during the time of Kevin Rudd's overthrow. Her only short story collection, The Secret Lives of Men, followed in 2013. 

In a crowning achievement, in 2016 Blain published two novels in the same month: Between a Wolf and a Dog and a sci-fi novel for young adults, Special. Novelist Charlotte Wood called Between a Wolf and a Dog "a novel of devastating clarity that traverses Blain's familiar terrain: the ordinary sadnesses in families, betrayal and forgiveness, the small, potent beauties of daily life that we allow to slip unnoticed through our fingers". In all her books Blain ruminates on families, siblings, loss, death, marriages and partnerships, in prose of stunning clarity and penetrating insight. Her writing is superbly paced and structured, and she has a gift for conjuring beaches, bush, and the suburbs of Sydney and Adelaide. 

There is another tragic twist to this tale. At the end of 2015, as Blain was editing Between a Wolf and a Dog, the story of a woman whose cancer has spread to her brain, Scott was diagnosed with brain cancer. Mere weeks later, Blain herself had a seizure that led to her diagnosis with brain cancer.

Following an operation to remove the tumour, Blain continued to edit her uncanny novel. This was a challenge: the tumour was on the language centres of her brain. So she also shifted to shorter forms, writing a series of searching essays about her cancer for The Saturday Paper. Amazingly, in her last year Blain also managed to complete the draft of another book: The Museum of Words, which will be published by Scribe in 2017.

Blain guarded her writing time ruthlessly, but she was equally ruthless with making time for Odessa and Andrew, family and friends. She never worked beyond 5pm nor on weekends. With Andrew she created beautiful homes centred around kitchens and gardens. She was prone to random extravagances, such as blowing a publisher's advance on a rug, a moody painting, a Danish sofa. Her taste was idiosyncratic, bold and – like everything with Blain – not given to the vagaries of fashion. She had a terrible weakness for trashy music, "rock ballads" as she called them. One of her favourites, Wildfire, was about a girl and her pony Wildfire, who busted down his stall to find her after she died one wintry night. Blain loved animals, especially dogs.

As well as her gift for writing, Blain had an immense gift for friendship. Despite her great wisdom and the seriousness of much of her writing and worldly concerns, she had an enormous capacity for fun and play. It was one of the many things that drew people to her, along with her honesty and acute sensitivity to the emotional lives of others.

In her last months Blain realised how blessed she was. She wrote in The Saturday Paper: "I have love and friends. I have work that I enjoy. I have never suffered for lack of anything." Georgia Blain will be missed beyond measure by Andrew, Odessa, her brother Joshua, her dog Sunday, her many friends and countless readers.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Georgia Francis Blain

  • Australian, 13 December 2016, by Caroline Overington

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jane Gleeson-White, 'Blain, Georgia Francis (1964–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

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