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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

A mother who died too young, the preoccupations of 50-somethings, and the wisdom of old age

Maggie Fergusson | January/February 2016

MEMOIR A Woman on the Edge of Time by Jeremy Gavron, Scribe, hardback, out now. In 1965, when Jeremy Gavron was four, his mother dropped him at nursery, drove to a friend’s flat, wrote an inadequate farewell note and gassed herself to death. At home, she was not spoken of again. Now 52 and himself a parent, Gavron sets out to resurrect the mother he never knew and, through painstakingly reconstructing her life, to understand her death. The picture that emerges is contradictory. On the one hand Hannah Gavron seems generous, vivacious, affectionate, on the other selfish, narcissistic, reckless. In a decade when most women still had to choose between children and a career, she had both – and a devoted husband to boot. But if her suicide remains a mystery, what is never in doubt is its bitter legacy. Half a century on Jeremy Gavron remains agonisingly “yearnful”.

SHORT STORIES Cockfosters by Helen Simpson, Cape, hardback, out now. Helen Simpson’s sixth collection is haunted by the passage of time. A henpecked insomniac husband watches the luminous digits of his bedside clock as he flounders in a “forest of worries”. A mother bakes the lemon drizzle cake she has been making for her grown-up daughter since she was a tot. Two women progress stop by stop down the Piccadilly line, their conversation swithering between trivia and the meaning of life. These are 50-somethings, for whom exhausted parenthood has given way to varifocals and inklings of mortality. It might all be a tad dour, were it not for the humour folded into every story. My favourite is “Cheapside”. A lawyer, overpaid and overweight, offers career advice to a doleful youth. Gradually we discover which of them we’d rather be. The conclusion is devastating.

HISTORY SPQR by Mary Beard, Profile, hardback, out now. Studying Roman history is like walking a tightrope, says Mary Beard. On one side the view is familiar, its ways written into our verbal and political life; on the other it’s alien. Opening dramatically with Cicero’s speech against Catiline in 63BC, this masterly history then loops back to 735BC and a small malarial settlement on the Tiber, then forward over 600-odd pages to 212AD when Caracalla declared every free inhabitant of the empire a full Roman citizen. Throughout, Beard combines a conversational tone with a cinematic eye, zooming in on vivid details – Catiline’s great-grandfather going into battle against Hannibal with a hook in place of an arm – then withdrawing to give the bigger picture. We have access to more Roman literature than anyone could master in a lifetime, Beard says. She’s had a damn good try.

ESSAYS Alive, Alive Oh! by Diana Athill, Granta, hardback, out now. For most of us, time to stand and stare comes only in early childhood and advanced old age. At 97, Diana Athill spends much of her day reviewing her life, an exercise she finds not pitiable but “rather pleasant”. In the ten essays collected in this volume, she carries us into her past with a combination of elegant prose and amused intelligence. There are scenes of piercing beauty, like the “flame of love” on her mother’s face when she saw Diana bending over her deathbed, and moments when her longevity lends her invaluable wisdom: anyone who remembers medicine before the second world war, she says, thinks of the NHS as “an almost miraculous institution”. Even when relating setbacks, she displays a gift for contentment. In a concluding poem she asks: “Why want anything more marvellous/than what is.”

NON-FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, Allen Lane, hardback, out now. In his early 20s, James Rebanks studied history at Magdalen, Oxford. This is remarkable – first because he’d flunked his GCSEs, and, secondly, because in this outstanding memoir the dreaming spires get barely a mention. Rebank’s Herdwick sheep and Lakeland farm are “the beginning and the end of everything, and everywhere else feels like nowhere”. In a book that began as a series of tweets, he introduces us to people of few words but much wit, and to the turning seasons of their year. It’s a tough, no-frills existence and Rebanks’s prose can make other nature writers seem by comparison high-falutin and sentimental. But when he looks up from the task at hand, there are flashes of poetry and an enviable sense of rooted belonging – “My life has a purpose, an earthy, sensible meaning.”

FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, Chatto, hardback, out now. Anne Tyler is the laureate of family life. In her 20th – and, she says, final – novel she explores three generations of Whitshanks, involving us in their secrets, writing always with a wry humour that gives sadness and extra tug. When Abby, the central, matriarchal figure, feels the beginnings of dementia – “see, sometimes my mind skips across a few minutes, like a needle on a record” – her four children and their spouses gather in the family home. But Abby, so good at looking after others, can’t bear to be the focus of pity. Escaping them all, she sets out with the dog, suffers a lapse in concentration, and meets her end. Even at this shocking moment Tyler’s playfulness doesn’t desert her. Did Abby want “Good Vibrations” played at her funeral? Her children can’t agree.

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