The lives she led

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Author: Ali Smith
Date: Jan. 1, 2016
From: TLS. Times Literary Supplement(Issue 5883)
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,798 words
Lexile Measure: 1500L

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Jeremy Gavron


A son's search for his mother

272pp. Scribe. 16.99 [pounds sterling].

978 1 925228 09 0

There are shades of the Ortonesque about the opening paragraphs of Jeremy Gavron's book about his mother, Hannah Gavron, A Woman on the Edge of Time:

On page five of its Christmas Eve issue of 1965, among stories of Yuletide parties, the army distributing Christmas cakes, and a shopkeeper charged with receiving stolen long johns, the Camden & St Pancras Chronicle of north London ran a brief report on the inquest into the death of a young woman.... Ten days earlier, on the afternoon of Tuesday 14 December, Hannah Gavron had dropped the younger of her two sons at a Christmas party at his nursery school in Highgate and driven to a friend's flat in Primrose Hill. There she let herself in, sealed the kitchen door and windows, wrote a brief note, and turned on the gas oven.... a North Thames Gas Board fitter with the unlikely name of Herbert Popjoy was sent to investigate.... Forcing his way in, he "dragged her into the hall and applied the 'kiss of life'", but despite his "heroic efforts" she could not be resuscitated.

This first section is called "These be the facts", a nod to Larkin's "This Be the Verse" with its famous first line, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad". This is a memoir and a non-memoir, one on many levels, of Hannah Gavron's absence, of her charismatic presence, and a vivid vision too of the decades which framed her. At the same time it acts as a parallel telling of part of the life of that "younger of her two sons"--"I am the son she took to nursery school that afternoon in 1965", Jeremy Gavron writes. "I was four years old."

This is the book that has stopped him writing other books for the past ten years. Its writing recalibrates the impossible conundrum of those "facts". It maps the process of breaking the silence round his mother's suicide. In his childhood, he writes, "my father decided that it was better if we didn't talk about her". The two boys are told their mother has died of a heart attack; but even before he turns sixteen and is told what really happened Gavron knows exactly what people mean when they talk about "phantom limbs", and the death has a somehow slightly dodgy or forbidden status, like the copies of the book she wrote, the great and groundbreaking sociological text about working- and middle-class women, marriage, children and family, The Captive Wife (1966), published a few months after she died at twenty-nine and always put away on a high...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A635178944