Louise Adler

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Han­nah Gavron com­mit­ted sui­cide in 1965, aged 29. A Lon­don so­ci­ol­o­gist, she left be­hind a suc­cess­ful aca­demic ca­reer, a de­voted hus­band and two small chil­dren. Her death re­mained an un­spo­ken ab­sence in her fam­ily’s life for al­most 50 years.

Her youngest son, jour­nal­ist Jeremy Gavron, was grief stricken when his older brother un­ex­pect­edly died and this trig­gered the need to un­der­stand his mother’s death. Among a trea­sure trove of pa­pers left by his grand­fa­ther, he found his mother’s sui­cide note with the scrib­bled af­ter­thought “please tell the boys I did love them ter­ri­bly”. This was the first in­ti­ma­tion of his mother’s sui­cide.

With in­ves­tiga­tive rigour Gavron pur­sues the sub­stance be­hind the enigma of a mother who had never been men­tioned in a fam­ily home de­void of pho­tos or the plea­sure of shared mem­o­ries. Was the act of sui­cide so shame­ful and trans­gres­sive in this haute bour­geois, sec­u­lar in­tel­lec­tual Jewish fam­ily that a mother’s mem­ory could be erased so thor­oughly?

Han­nah Gavron’s story is not unique: its set­ting is the priv­i­leged, highly ed­u­cated cos­mopoli­tan mi­lieu in which a young woman is able to flour­ish. Born in Pales­tine to com­mit­ted Zion­ists, the fam­ily has re­turned to Bri­tain in the 1950s. Han­nah as a child has tremen­dous tal­ent, charm and vi­vac­ity. She is in anal­y­sis at the age of two, her par­ents devo­tees of Freud and equally prone to tak­ing to the couch. She ex­cels at school, in show jump­ing com­pe­ti­tions and is a spe­cial­ist in flirt­ing. She is pre­co­cious in ev­ery as­pect of life. She is also a tremen­dous show-off with a healthy level of self-ab­sorp­tion.

At a pro­gres­sive board­ing school, Han­nah de­cides she and her friends are over­weight and in­sti­tutes ex­er­cises classes, which she leads with the ex­hor­ta­tion “that this too too solid flesh would melt”. By 15 she is sex­u­ally in­volved with the charis­matic head­mas­ter, a com­pli­cated char­ac­ter with a pen­chant for re­la­tion­ships with stu­dents. He comes with a dark back­story of lead­ing a school moun­taineer­ing ex­cur­sion on which a num­ber of boys died.

From school, Han­nah pro­gresses to the Royal Academy of Dra­matic Art but by 18 has dropped out to marry a young busi­ness­man with whom she has fallen deeply in love. Two chil­dren ar­rive with pre­dictable prompt­ness. As the 60s progress, Han­nah, never one to miss out, senses the tan­ta­lis­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties the decade of­fers: sex­ual free­dom, ex­per­i­ments in ed­u­ca­tional prac­tise, nascent un­rest among the young, miniskirts, Mary Quant bobs and the manda­tory black polo-neck sweater.

With the eco­nomic free­dom of her class and the abil­ity to out­source do­mes­tic du­ties, she A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for his Mother By Jeremy Gavron Scribe, 320pp, $35

Jeremy Gavron with his mother, Han­nah, in 1961 and, right, Gavron to­day

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