Book review: Ten Steps to Nanette, Hannah Gadsby

A comic's hard-won journey is paved with doubt, misogyny and mental health issues.

Hannah Gadsby describes her memoir Ten Steps To Nanette as like Eat, Pray, Love for autistic queer women. It’s a claim that’s totally accurate and strategically minimal at the same time, and this is what Gadsby does best: acknowledges she’s a target, and then questions why such a person should be a target at all.

Gadsby’s memoir may share traits with Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling book but you can also say that it’s similar to Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, albeit for funny people who lived through Tasmania’s ban on homosexuality (it was considered illegal until 1997). 

Both statements are acknowledged in Time’s book review of the unlikely icon. It is Gadsby’s ability to stylishly skewer the demands society places on us that makes her memoir a timeless contribution to the letters of note offered by public figures.

There is a wealth of anecdote and experience in Gadsby’s book that explains how she got to Nanette in Ten Steps, but not everything is covered. There’s a focus on her Tasmanian upbringing (and the detail is sometimes harrowing) but Gadsby acknowledges that some stories have been saved for future shows.

In the meantime, there’s her close relationship with her mum. What she details in biting wit is a telling source of her comedy. So too is the insoluble problem of her psychiatric struggles, culminating in a late in life diagnosis with ADHD and autism, which she has mined for comedy in shows such as Hannah Gadsby Is Wrong And Broken, and others. 

Speaking to The New York Times’ behind the bestseller page, Gadsby reflects how her natural communication style would make it easier to write a memoir of bullet points rather than paragraphs. The result is a personal narrative with the hideousness and humour of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, replete with the footnotes. It dares to ask whether genius and hideousness always go together, or whether patriarchy is a problem for female genius. 

Australians do well in the entertainment industry. Ever since Germaine Greer took London by storm in a BBC comedy she mixed with a teaching load, international entertainment has been captivated by Australian forthrightness. If somebody was going to be celebrated for calling Hollywood out on its culture of objectifying women, it’s not a surprise that person was an Australian. 

Read: Book review: The Eulogy, Jackie Bailey

We’re lucky that Gatsby’s curatorial eye shows the revolution in gender relations we’ve needed since the days when Tasmania’s homosexuality laws were the dark heart of what it means to be Australian.

Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation, Hannah Gadsby
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
ISBN: 9781742374031
Format: Paperback
Pages: 400pp
RRP: $49.99
Publication Date: March 2022

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin