My Animal Life
By Maggie Gee
Although she has had her fair share of terrors and humiliations, the novelist Maggie Gee has no single searing trauma to recount, nor triumph over tragedy to share. If the modern memoir crudely divides between the sensationalist survival manual or the finely turned writer's life, Gee has (not surprisingly) written a book more of the second kind, albeit in a rather original frame.
The story begins with a recent visit to hospital to explore unexplained stomach pains, only to discover it is not cancer, but probably an infection. The "greatcoat of terror" shrugged off, Gee takes the chance to look at "this astonishing living moment . . . between two states of non-being, two endless nights. Unprepared, we are thrust on stage . . . Life!"
It is a tall and potentially eccentric order to connect her highly specific existence, as a London-based writer in the 21st century, to the "blind out-of-season bee bombing the glass of this window . . . to the brown small-headed pheasant running by the lake". She pulls it off, largely by confining the animal-life motif to a brilliant but light daubing on the more conventional canvas of memoir.
In many ways, this is a quintessentially English story, the stuff of popular culture from Alan Bennett's The History Boys to Lynn Barber's
An Education. Gee's working-class parents had already moved up the social ladder. Her father was a headmaster, a man of rages and proud ambition, of whom she was nervous. Her adored mother briefly fled her husband's domination, the return home brokered by Gee, as a young adult, on conditions of greater independence. Clever and bookish, Gee won an open scholarship to Somerville College, and thereafter experienced a kind of class-based seasickness.
Gee can come across as rather dreamy in print, but her life speaks of someone more daring, and worldly. She was the victim of an attempted rape as a teenager. Two other assaults are mentioned almost in passing. None of these, she insists, has affected her consensual sexual life, which she celebrates with a refreshing candour.
But Gee's toughness emerges most clearly in her account of the "worst five years of my professional life", during which she could not get a book published. Given the modern taboo against failure, this chapter cannot have been an easy one to write. What was particularly wounding was that the wave of rejections came not at the beginning of her career, when disappointment can be de rigueur for the future great writer, but with her sixth book, years after she had been included in Granta's first Best of Young British Novelists list.
There is an agonising account of her stilted and viscerally uncomfortable relationship with a powerful agent who terminates their relationship by fax when she suggests approaching a small firm with her manuscript. Gee was threatened with extinction as a writer. In fact, the independent publisher turns out to be the place where she can be her true writerly self, another animal comfort.
This is unequivocally a female life, in the questions it raises about men's and women's natures, in its awareness of the need to balance the elements essential to all human beings: chiefly, work and love. As in her novels, Gee is not afraid to explore the depth and power of human love. The passages about her family and friends are all the more compelling for admitting ambivalence and imperfection at every turn, and there is a moving description of her mother's last days.
With no religious belief, Gee wonders if she will one day meet those who have died, including babies lost through miscarriages. She sees their possible existence beyond this world, after visiting an exhibition of Turner's Italian paintings at an Edinburgh gallery, as being like the artist's "distant islands of sharpness . . . more compelling than his foregrounds".
The risk is that happiness writes white; that we, the readers, say: "Yes, but what's the real story?" Or that those of us less fortunate might find her smug. Our problem entirely. It is a testament to Gee's skill with structure, her lightness of touch and her honesty, particularly about the most painful episodes, that she has fashioned this account of a fundamentally satisfying and happy writer's life into such a page-turner.
Melissa Benn's most recent novel, "One of Us", is now available in Vintage paperback (£7.99)
My Animal Life
Telegram Books, 224pp, £16.99