Review: A Woman on the Edge of Time

Painfully achieved restoration tragedy


By Jeremy Gavron
Scribe, £16.99

Declaration of interest: I knew Jeremy Gavron at university, through one of the people who features in this book. Well, to say that I knew him would be an exaggeration; the main thing I understood about him I had picked up from my friend amid the hearsay of the Cambridge social whirl.

What I knew of him seemed terrible - that his mother was an iconic early 1960s feminist; when he was very small she had turned on a gas cooker and killed herself.

Gavron has borne this knowledge nearly all his life. Whether because of the times or out of respect for her grief-stricken family, the cataclysm prompted those in intellectual Jewish north London who knew Hannah Gavron to fall silent. The cause of her death, the woman behind it, remained an unexplained scar, even if the story followed her son for years.

In A Woman on the Edge of Time, Gavron sets out to give form to the mist of a lifetime's emotions and barely understood certainties. He was 29, the same age as his mother when she died, before he saw scribbled on the back of an envelope her parting words: "Please tell the boys I did love them terribly!"

Despite echoes of the suicide nearby of Sylvia Plath just two years earlier, there was no scandal. No one spoke much more - and certainly not to her two children - about the young wife of rising printing magnate Bob Gavron. Hannah had been an aspiring academic sociologist. Her study of married women's lives, The Captive Wife, was acclaimed when it came out posthumously in 1966.

There had never been an appropriate time, or need, to investigate before but, in mid-life, Gavron found himself contacting dozens of her friends and colleagues. He grasped back through reverberations and concealments to portray his mother through fragments of their memories, a woman of rare energy who lit up a room. The result is a brave reckoning with family secrets. Gavron views his inheritance from the twin standpoints of a son, unmoored but voicing tricky questions to his father, and of a hardened journalist, widening his pool of contacts and persisting in his enquiries.

He is tender toward the young Hannah, yet full of dread, never sure what he might unearth. His grandfather's diary and Hannah's juvenile letters to friends yield theories that remain tenuous. She had what she called an "affaire" with her boarding-school headmaster. This man, Gavron finds, had misadventures with young people in his charge going back to the 1930s, that no one seemed to question. Ever restless, she left school early for RADA, only to drop out for marriage, which she soon combined with university.

It is hard to know what she wanted. The end was preceded by another, dramatic, failed affair. But the son does not apportion blame. Except perhaps for the times in which she lived. Hannah had interviewed nearly 100 women trapped at home for a thesis that became The Captive Wife. Thwarted in securing an academic position herself, she was clearly too challenging to the male status quo.

That book was Hannah's achievement - to Bob Gavron the core thing worth keeping of her. Fifty years later, her son risked betraying her family and friends simply by asking. But, through them, he has restored her legacy.

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