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.