It's 1965, and in Primrose Hill, North London, a beautiful young woman has just gassed herself to death, leaving behind a suicide note, two small children, and an about-to-be-published manuscript: The Captive Wife.
Like Sylvia Plath, who died in eerily similar circumstances two years earlier just two streets away, Hannah Gavron was a writer. But no one had ever imagined that she might take her own life.
Bright, sophisticated, and swept up in the progressive politics of the 1960s, Hannah was a promising academic and the wife of a rising entrepreneur. Surrounded by success, she seemed to live a gilded life. But there was another side to Hannah, as Jeremy Gavron's searching memoir of his mother reveals.
Piecing together the events that led to his mother's suicide when he was just four, he discovers that Hannah's success came at a price and that the pressures she faced as she carved out her place in a man's world may have contributed to her death.
Searching for the mother who was never talked about as he grew up, he discovers letters, diaries, and photos that paint a picture of a brilliant but complex young woman grappling to find an outlet for her creativity, sexuality, and intelligence.
A Woman on the Edge of Time not only documents the too-short life of an extraordinary woman; it is a searching examination of the suffocating constrictions in place on intelligent, ambitious women in the middle of the 20th century.
©2015 Jeremy Gavron (P)2015 Audible, Ltd
"Gavron has written a book as brave and honest as it is heart-stopping and gripping. With the meticulousness of a detective and the heart and soul of an abandoned son, he sets out to examine a family tragedy so raw and agonising that it is rarely talked, let alone written, about. I felt for him - and every man, woman and child in this book - whilst at the same time finding myself unable to put it down.... But if authors can’t write about the mysteries closest to their hearts, then what point is there, really, in memoir?" (Julie Myerson)
"A Woman on the Edge of Time possesses all the signature verve, imagination and elegance of Gavron's writing but he brings to this, the story of his mother's suicide when he was four years old, a particular burning, restless intelligence. The result is a memoir of devastating, heartbreaking power: I had to put my life on hold to finish it." (Maggie O'Farrell)
"I'm quite overwhelmed by the artistry of this memoir/detective story/sociological study. It is in essence a reconstruction of his mother's life - but it's not only about his mother, and what drove her to kill herself at twenty-nine. It is about so much more. About women - vibrant, ambitious, intelligent women, who came of age in the 50s in that precarious post-war decade before feminism took hold. It is a beautifully written and remarkably honest book that many women will identify with - what it means to try to have it all, while society does nothing to support you. I found it deeply moving, insightful, and gripping." (Esther Freud)
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"The woman who lit lamps"
In 1965 Jeremy Gavron's 29 year-old mother Hannah seemed to have it all: having married at 18, she had two little boys; she had a burgeoning career as a writer on what were for that time ground-breaking feminist issues, and a job at Hornsey College of Art won in the face of male hostility; she had holidays in St Tropez with her gifted and successful husband; a full-time nanny, radical and exciting friends; plenty of money and loving parents. So why did she take 7 year-old Simon to school and 4 year-old Jeremy (the author of this book) to his Christmas party at his nursery and then go to her friend's flat to which she had keys, seal the door, swallow pills and alcohol and turn on the gas taps?
Jeremy's father, Bob Gavron, later Lord Gavron, adopted what he thought was the best way of coping for him and his two young children: start gain and never mention Hannah's name. The children were told she had had a heart attack, were brought up in ignorance of who their mother had really been, and never told that their she had left a note to say how much she had loved them. It was the sudden death of his brother Simon at the age of 47 which galvanised the novelist Jeremy Gavron into researching Hannah's life and getting to know and understand the mother he ad never known. The result is this deeply interesting and insightful book well read here by Joe Jameson who helps to make Hannah with all her talents and weaknesses brilliantly alive.
Gavron was lucky - he has had access to an enormous treasure trove of diaries and letters as well as having been able to talk to people who knew Hannah intimately. As he discovers another layer of Hannah, so do we as listeners. Immensely and precociously clever as a child, she excelled at everything she did, but Bob Gavron was warned by Hannah's mother that she would take up something with wild enthusiasm and then give it up - as she would with Rada and ultimately with life itself. Her charm, intellect, huge smile and vivacity were phenomenal - she was the woman who lit lamps when she walked in a room. It was her 'intense clarity of mind that burned like the sun' which in his own words attracted her colleague John Hayes to her, the man who still lives with his same male partner, with whom Hannah fell in love and whom she wanted to marry. It was his refusal which prompted that fatal trip to her friend's flat, just two streets away from where Sylvia Plath had done the same thing two years previously. Hannah, the golden success girl, could not handle failure.
It is of course much more complex than this and the young woman with all her untameable passions and break-neck ambitions are revealed little by little. By the end Gavron has reconstructed his multi-faceted mother for himself and us. Totally gripping throughout, it rescues Hannah from being just another suicide statistic to being a full and special woman. It also explores with great sensitivity the ramifications of pain and damage suffered by those still living following a suicide, which is both moving and constructive.
This is a title absolutely not to be missed.
I "binge" listened to this as there were so many parallels with my own family history in terms if my adoptive mother and her struggles with 50s/60s domesticity, mental health and family. Highly recommend.
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