Novelist Maggie Gee deals with the familiar subject-matter of family life and struggling artist, but Bidisha finds the results far from ordinary
My Animal Life is the true story of the novelist Maggie Gee’s life as it develops – no, it’s sharper than that – it cuts its way through the decades. At the beginning is a claustrophobic and seemingly correct little post-war family with siblings, two parents and a respectable front door which conceals the bullying inside and protects its perpetrator.
Gee’s father Vic was an anxious, aggressive, pathetic blusterer and it is a testament to the fineness of Gee’s mind that she can write about him with psychological acuity and forgiving equilibrium, when icy hate would be just as understandable. An equal sense of measure and probing intelligence are brought to every aspect of her life, no matter how wretchedly funny or banal the anecdotes. That house of tension and cruelty is finally escaped and the dissatisfied young person becomes, as we all know, a renowned writer and author of the novels The White Family and My Driver.
My Animal Life is not, at first reading, an original story. Gee does not join the circus, make a pioneering journey to an ‘undiscovered’ continent, detect a crucial kink in the human genome or imbibe so many drugs that she reaches an entirely new level of psychic understanding. Every teenager, every young adult, every ambitious new artist feels themselves to be a charlatan, or suffers from unjustified braggadocio, or finds the arts world at once vulgar and corrupt, tempting and terrifying. Everyone wants to make it in a milieu they are repelled by.
Such things have been written a hundred times before, and any scribe will feel pangs of dreadful sympathy to read about the attempted and bungled books, rejections, machinations and humiliations of the whole novel-writing project.
What Maggie Gee brings to this well-known world of literary striving is a unique seriousness and insight, coupled with an understanding of the political shifts in the society she has occupied: the sexual revolution, the women’s revolution, the creaky shifts in class and culture as Britain has rattled awkwardly against its hinges in the last four or five decades.
As the book progresses, one realises that this is not at all a piece of autobiographical vanity publishing but a revelation so profound and pared down that every word strikes like a hammer on an anvil, throwing off sizzling sparks.
There is the fleet fast escape from a stifling home, then Oxford, love, children, writing and success, all in vertiginous succession. Each vignette springs perfectly formed from the crisp core of another.
It is with a sense of sweet rapture and vindication that one reads about Maggie Gee’s happy marriage: “In one photo he is kissing me and I am pressed back, we are arched together, a bow of longing pointing to the future.” But there is also tremendous pain and rage at the long cost of human love – and human oppression.
When Gee’s mother dies we feel the red hot skewer of her grief, her anger: “So many times in my adult life she could not be there, because of Dad’s rules… When I gave birth, when I got married, I loved my mother, I missed my mother.” Gee’s heart-cracking description of her miscarriages, and her little daughter Rosa’s reaction to them, I will leave for discovery by the millions of readers who I hope will buy My Animal Life.