A Woman on the Edge of Time
Jeremy Gavron was in his mid-40s when his brother, Simon, died of a heart attack. Gavron was established in his career as a journalist and novelist, and married with two daughters. His relationship with Simon was complex and not easy, but the force of his grief seemed to be “…welling up from some place so deep inside me, that I come to wonder whether Simon’s death has not also dislodged an older grief in me, the way an earthquake might open a crack in the ground and expose something long buried”. This older grief was for his mother, the author Hannah Gavron, who killed herself when she was 29 and Gavron was just four. She had dropped him at his nursery school before gassing herself in a friend’s flat.
In his search to know who Hannah really was, Gavron speaks with her friends and colleagues, shares her letters and traces her footsteps. Her book, The Captive Wife, published posthumously in 1966, was a groundbreaking study of the lives of women caring for young children and leads Gavron to wonder what social context played in her decision. Or was there a family history of depression? A love affair gone wrong? Professional disappointment? Some kind of psychosis?
On the one hand, these things seem important – but they also don’t matter a jot. The important part of this family memoir, for the reader as well as for Gavron himself, is that Hannah comes alive in these pages. She’s impetuous and brilliant and self-deprecating. “…young, attractive, confident, bright, able; she brought an extra jolt to life,” one friend remembered. “Small, slender, agile, she was enormously precocious,” wrote Gavron’s grandfather.
Gavron includes extracts from Hannah’s own letters; in these, she seems tentative and cheerful and so, so young.
Gavron is clear-eyed but modest about his family: his father, Lord Gavron, was a printing tycoon; his half-sister Sarah Gavron is a film director, and nephew Rafi an actor. This is as it should be: it’s Hannah’s story, and Jeremy’s. In crime fiction, every terrible action has a single motive. In real life, people are neither villains nor angels, and no one can know the forces that act upon another.
The story is deeply affecting in itself but it is Gavron’s sensibility and vulnerability that make this book so special, and so stunning. A Woman on the Edge of Time is a love letter to a remarkable woman as much as an obituary. LS
Scribe, 272pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2015 as "Jeremy Gavron, A Woman on the Edge of Time ". Subscribe here.