Jo Malone, My Story #JoLoves

Although I lived in London through much of the period when the Jo Malone brand was being created and built, I can’t say I was really aware of it in its early days, not until it hit its tipping point and her trademark bags and candles started to become the beautiful gifts others in the know would offer those who didn’t shop in the more exclusive shopping areas of Chelsea and Belgravia where you often find luxury hip and boutique brands.

my-storyBut Jo Malone the girl, wasn’t born into luxury. She was an ordinary girl raised in a family that struggled a bit on the good days, and a lot on the bad days, which were often brought on by her doting father’s gambling inclinations, her mother’s over-spending habit and the pressure to work long hours to keep the family afloat.

Her mother returned to the workforce as a manicurist until she was lured away by the eccentric Madame Lubatti, who would become an influential figure in Jo’s early life, an Empress of scent, whose origins we never really discover, just that she spent time in Hong Kong gathering her knowledge.

She would introduce her protegé (mother and daughter) to her laboratory of elixirs and magic ingredients and taught Jo to develop her nose and instinct allowing her to experiment and discover how to create  face mask and cream blends, until they were just right – texture, aroma, perfection – inspiring confidence in her while she was young enough not to doubt her ability to make fragrant, creamy magic.

Madame Lubatti coaxed out my love of fragrance and essentially trained my instincts…She would bring over three unlabelled bottles of different rose oils, remove the stoppers, place each one under my nose and ask:

‘What do you think that smells of?’

I’d close my eyes and sniff; ‘Tea-rose?’

It impressed her that I could tell the difference between the woody muskiness of a garden rose, the clean apple-green notes of a tea rose, and the rich, regal scent of a Bulgarian rose.

She would learn other secrets of scent, of the importance of the whiteness of the room, and allowed her access to the biggest secret of her unrivalled success, a precious, well-thumbed, black leather ledger, filled with four decades if recipes. The elderly Madame Lubatti not only exposed to the secrets of her clinic and laboratory, she also took her on her visits to the homeopathic chemist for pills, powders and oils, the herbalist for herbs, waxes and dried flowers and to Marylebone High Street for chocolate marzipan at the Viennese coffee shop. She imparted to Jo her high standards, stressing ‘If you can’t do something perfectly, don’t do it at all. You must do it brilliantly!’

While she was competent in the home and at the salon where her mother worked and even accompanied her father to sell his paintings in the market during a prolonged period of unemployment, school was not any kind of refuge for Jo. Her undiagnosed dyslexia contributed to her difficulty and she would leave school without any qualifications, but quickly found one job after another through her mother’s contacts, until eventually joining up to work with her mother giving facials to clients and making home-made product to sell to them.

She would go on to attract her own clients and after a series of falling outs with her mother, would go it alone, working from a room in their small apartment, making product from her kitchen. By this time she had married Gary, a young man she met in a period when she joined a bible study class. He was the grounding stability she needed, the strategic businessman to her creative inspiration. From this point on, she rarely mentions her family, though one incident reveals something of the bitterness that existed among those who were close to them. Malone’s response to the incident is to share a little of her life philosophy:

…human nature is divided between those who thrive on, and get easily distracted by, gossip and they tend to go nowhere; and those people who know their purpose, know what they want, and won’t give weight to the chirpings of misinformed tittle-tattle because they know that such things are a waste of focus and energy.

lime-basilWhen she really began to play around with fragrance, demand began to rise more than she could cope with, and Gary suggested they embrace the business, move it to its own premise and open a shop. Her business was beginning to overwhelm their living condition, he recognised the potential and offered to commit himself wholeheartedly it. That would be the beginning of Jo Malone, her signature brand.

post-itFrom there, a whirlwind of events follow and she will partner up with a perfume house in Paris, turning her instinct into a viable, enduring product. She tried to put into words her creative process and it is fascinating when she does, for it is something that can’t be copied or cloned, it is an insight into the pure magic of creativity, of how she uses image, colour and experience to create a scent.

Those descriptions of her creative process are some of the most exciting and inspirational passages in the book; when she begins to flourish her creativity sings and reading her descriptions of being in the creative zone, of creating a scent, playing with the notes of fragrance my post-it notes were flying. I had to refrain from dog-earring pages and scribbling in the margins as the book was lent to me.

Having become interested in and immersed in the study of aromas and the energetic and therapeutic qualities of essential oils 20 years ago, I too am someone who creates aromatic oils and creams and loves nothing more than to experiment with and create a personalised magic blend for a client or friend, so I totally relate to the bliss Jo Malone felt when she’s doing her thing in a creative sense. (Me with some of my magic potions below).

Though she had her share of fears and trepidation at entering into the unknown, her life has been scattered with signs and synchronicities that propelled her forward, to meet those who would show her the way, encourage her to take the next step, work through the challenges, admit the mistakes, learn from them and move on where possible.

pomeloI absolutely loved this book, from it’s at times heartbreaking accounts of struggle in childhood, to the discovery of her passion, the development of her creativity and the strong work ethic that carried her forward, to finding the perfect mate and the journey they would go on together.

And though she is no longer part of Jo Malone, she is where she ought to be, doing what she loves and still thinking outside the box, creating new scents and new experiences. This one, her new signature fragrance and brand was included in the front of the book, it smells divine!

P A S S I O N  * R E S I L I E N C E   * C R E A T I V I T Y

Highly Recommended!

 

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

This book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

blue-nightsWritten as a reflection on the death of her daughter at 39 years of age, the book begins as Didion thinks back to her daughter’s wedding seven years earlier, which then triggers other memories of her childhood, of family moments, of people and places, numerous hotels they have frequented.

She reflects on her role as a mother, something she hadn’t wanted to be, until suddenly she did, pregnancy had been something to fear, then it became something she yearned for, though it was not to be.

She had difficulty understanding her daughter’s fear of abandonment, knowing how much she needed her child. She displayed little if any understanding or knowledge of common issues that many adoptees often retain within their psyche, issues her daughter presented and was confronted by, including the later presentation of a fully formed family – her birth parents eventually married and had other children.

When we think about adopting a child, or for that matter about having a child at all, we stress the ‘blessing’ part.
We omit the instant of sudden chill, the ‘what if’ the free fall into certain failure.
What if I fail to take care of this baby?
What if this baby fails to thrive, what if this baby fails to love me?
And worse yet, worse by far, so much worse as to be unthinkable, except I did it, everyone who has ever waited to bring a baby home thinks it: what if I fail to love this baby?

Didion examines details of her daughters childhood and life and drawers of photographs and mementos of people who have left her. Not nearly as compelling at her year of magical thinking, and a little too much a collection of names dropped that I found myself skipping over, which all felt terribly sad.

When she speaks of herself, her prose is poetic, mellifluous, at ease. When writing snippets of motherhood and recalling images of her daughter, her language becomes stilted, dissonant, the connections between her thoughts less fluid, the pain too sharp. Ageing has been a long process, one she realises she has seen in her mother, grandmother, but won’t see in her daughter.

joan-didion-and-quintana-rooAlthough the main theme of the book is her daughter’s premature death, nowhere does she analyse or obsess about what actually happened in the way we vividly remember she did about her husband in My Year of Magical Thinking. Rather, the book appears to be as much an acknowledgement of her own ageing and decline, recognising and facing up to her own ‘frailty’, her obsession with her own health scares, recounting every little malfunction or symptom of a thing that never shows up on any of the numerous scans or tests she has. It is as if she writes her own denouement, to a death that never arrives, as the multitude and thoroughness of all the tests she has show how very much alive and in relative good health she is, despite herself.

I was curious to know what she might write looking back at this relationship with her only child, a precious adopted daughter and I was honestly quite shocked at how self-centred the entire book was and how little we came to know Quintana. Rather than go on about that, I refer anyone who is interested to this insightful article below.

Lorraine Dusky also gave birth in 1966 to a daughter, the same year Qunitana was born and for a while she actually thought Joan Didion may have adopted her daughter and went so far as to write and ask. It wasn’t the case and she later met her own daughter, who also died relatively young. As a birth mother she has significant awareness of the issues faced by birth parents and adoptees and her review and commentary of Blue Nights goes some way to addressing Didion’s oblivion.

Article – Joan Didion’s Blue Nights is Really an Adoption Memoir by Lorraine Dusky

joan-didion

Top Reads 2016

In 2016, I read 55 books, just over my ongoing intention, to read a book a week.

I managed to read books by authors from 26 different countries and 19 of them, just over a third, were translations. My absolute favourite book of the year, was written by an author from Guadeloupe, translated from French into English, and 3 of my top 5 fiction reads were translated.

Outstanding Read of 2016
Bridge of Beyond

The book that has stayed with me, that I loved above all else was Simone Schwarz- Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, a novel that touched on the lives of three generations of women from the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe, narrated by the granddaughter Telumee as she grows up on the island, learning from experience and the traditions of her culture, guided by the wisdom of her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’. A masterpiece of Caribbean literature, “an unforgettable hymn to the resilience and power of women,” translated from French, republished as a New York Review of Books (NYRB) classic.

Top 5 Fiction Reads

Human ActsHuman Acts, Han Kang (South Korea) tr. Deborah Smith

As much a work of art as novel, Human Acts is an attempt to understand a despicable act of humanity through story telling, Han Kang was one of the most thought provoking authors of 2016 for me, equally incredible was her novel The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

What Lies Between UsWhat Lies Between Us, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka)

Like The Bridge of Beyond, Munaweera’s work is evocative of place and she brings a childhood in the gardens of Sri Lanka alive. A woman remembers her past from behind the walls of a cell, and as she reveals her upbringing and the changes that brought her family to live in America, we wonder what went terribly wrong, that caused her to lose everything. And best book cover!

zoraTheir Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (USA)

I finally read this great American classic and it was absolutely fantastic, another story that touches on multiple generations of women and how the lives of each affects the other, as they all wish a different life for the future generation. Janie is determined to live her life differently, but some lessons have to be lived thought and not told. The prose is astounding, melodic and the whole reading experience one I’ll never forget.

FirdausWoman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) tr. Sherif Hetata

An internationally renowned feminist writer, activist, physician, psychiatrist and prolific writer, I’d been wanting to read her for some time and during August, reading books by Women authors in translation #WITMonth was the perfect opportunity. And what a novel! Inspired by real events, after she was given the opportunity to interview a woman who had been been imprisoned for killing a man and due to be executed, she retells this story of Firdous, too beautiful and poor to pass through life unscathed, who finds the desire to lift herself and others out of oppression and will pay the ultimate price. Haunting, beautiful, a must read author and book!

Days of AbandonmentDays of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante (Italy) tr. Ann Goldstein

The year wouldn’t be complete without Elena Ferrante, the reclusive Italian author whose identity was outed this year, although I didn’t read any of the reports, preferring she remain as unknown to me now as before. Days of Abandonment was published before her popular tetrology which began with My Brilliant Friend and is a compelling, searing account of one woman’s descent into semi madness following abandonment by her husband, in the days where the hurt prevents her from seeing things objectively and her rationality leaves her. It’s full of tension, as she has two young children and Ferrante uses her incredible talent to make the reader live through the entire uncomfortable experience of this roller coaster ride of temporary insanity.

Top Non Fiction Reads

Memoir

Brother Im DyingBrother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

A beautiful memoir of her father and his brother, alternating between Haiti and America, it is a tribute to a special relationship and an insight into the sacrifices people make to better the lives of others, whether its family or their community. I’ve read her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory she is a wonderful writer with a gift for compassionate storytelling.

why-be-happyWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (UK)

Wow, this is the adoption memoir that tops all others, a literary tour de force, an entertaining, horrifying account of a young girl’s childhood, survived by a strong passion for life and literature that gets her through some tough moments and develops an iron will to pursue the joy that appeals so much more than the conformity her mother sought. Brilliant.

woman-on-the-edgeA Woman on the Edge of Time by Jeremy Gavron (UK)

Less a memoir of the son, than one of his obsession to understand why his mother, when she appeared to have everything a young woman would ever want, decided to end it all. Having never asked questions about his mother’s suicide, Jeremy Gavron, now a father of two girls becomes obsessed with knowing who she was and what pressures lead her to her end. Early 1960’s insight.

The Blue Satin NightgownThe Blue Satin Nightgown by Karin Crilly (US)

A reading highlight of the year for me, I’ve seen Karin’s book go through many stages leading to publication this year, in my review you’ll read how I was involved a little in its development. I knew it would be a success, as we sipped champagne together in Aix after she won the Good Life in France short story competition for the first chapter, Scattered Dreams. Last seen, Karin and her friend Judy were in China continuing their adventures, which age will never hamper and there’s a mysterious new man appearing in her recent Facebook posts, suggesting she may be writing a sequel perhaps?

Soul Food

This year, in particular after the harrowing experience accompanying my 14-year-old daughter through back surgery to correct a curvature of the spine, I read a few books by authors published by Hay House, whose radio show I often  listen to. I’m already a fan and follower of Colette Baron-Reid and her book Uncharted came out this year, and through her I discovered, listened to and read What if This is Heaven by Anita Moorjani, Making Life Easy by Christiane Northrup and I’m still slow reading a few others. During challenging times, these authors are a soothing balm, reminding us of much we may already know, offering an alternative perspective on how we see things and tips for remaining grounded and healthy in body, mind and spirit.

Special Mentions

how-to-be-braveUnforgettable Reading Experience Ever: How to Be Brave, Louise Beech(UK)

I couldn’t let the year pass without mentioning the extraordinary reading experience of Louise Beech’s How to Be Brave. I read this book while I was in the hospital with my daughter and it was surreal, a captivating, incredible story, based partly on true events, both those of the author and her daughter, who are both coming to terms with a recent diagnosis of Type1 diabetes and a retelling of her grandfather’s epic journey lost at sea, after their ship was destroyed.

Bonjour TristesseBest Translations: Bonjour Tristesse(France) & The Whispering Muse (Iceland)

Two fabulous novellas, from Iceland, Sjón’s The Whispering Muse was my first read of the year for 2016 and I loved it, it’s a kind of parody of The Argonauts and had me looking up references to the Greek classic and enjoying both the story and its connections.

Bonjour Tristesse is an excellent, slim summer read, of a young woman’s regret, a heady summer on the French Riviera, engaging as she has a deft ability to portray her minds workings and see herself interacting with the others, aware of her own manipulative ability and yet unable to stop herself. Brilliant.

GeorgiaBest Fictional Biography: Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, Dawn Tripp (US)

I love the work of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, she’s probably my favourite artist in fact. And she was an incredible woman, who lived a long time and had an intriguing relationship with her husband, who discovered her as one of his protege, the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Steiglitz. Dawn Tripp has done an outstanding job of researching her life, bringing to this novel, insights from new material available and succeeds in doing what hasn’t really been done before, channelling the voice of the artist, providing a perspective that is loyal to the artist and how she may have thought.

Brief HistoryBiggest, Most Satisfying Challenge: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James (Jamaica)

Written a large part in Jamaican patois, with a wide array of characters, this 700+ page book won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and was my summer chunkster for 2016. I gave it 5 stars for sheer effort, even though it’s not really my style of book, I tend to prefer the stories by women writers from around the Caribbean, Marlon James is perhaps too modern for me, he moves his story out of generational tradition and into the cold, dark, masculine front lines of survival, jealousy and ambition in a trigger happy, drug induced frightening world that is far from sleepy villages I prefer to inhabit.

Biggest Disappointment: The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, Herta Muller (Romania)(DNF)

It wasn’t on my reading list and I should have listened to my instinct, but since I was reading books by women in translation and I’d been sent this by the publisher (unsolicited), and it was a novel by a Nobel Prize winning author I attempted it. Impossible. Incomprehensible. Stop. Prize winning authors and books should be looked at like any other book I tell myself, forget about what a committee of 18 Swedish writers, linguists, literary scholars, historians and a prominent jurist with life tenure think, they are not you.

Well that’s it for 2016, another great reading year!

What was your outstanding read for 2016?

 

Making Life Easy, A Simple Guide to a Divinely Inspired Life by Christiane Northrup, M.D.

making-life-easyThis was my first read of Christiane Northrup, despite the fact she’s written lots of books, with titles like: Goddesses Never Age: The Secret Prescription for Radiance, Vitality, and Well-Being, The Wisdom of Menopause: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing During the Change and Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing (39 editions published).

In this newest title however, she say’s she’s ‘coming out’ in relation to her spiritual beliefs in a way she has not done before, relying on the banner and weight of credibility of her medical qualifications, which has allowed her to write about more mainstream subjects related to health, ageing and women’s afflictions. Now she reveals another side to her rituals and practises, bringing oracles, angels and raised vibrations into her mainstream medical world.

The first section where she speaks about her spiritual life and the lessons and courses she did to learn the things she has made part of her life was the stand out part of the book for me and a strong affirmation to come across a women from such a traditional profession being so open and honest about her beliefs and experiences beyond the five senses.

“We’re here to develop faith – faith in things that our five senses can’t see, touch, hear or feel and that our intellects can’t prove…clinging to logical, rational, linear thinking is what keeps life hard.”

In essence her message comes down to a basic premise, her philosophy about living an easy life:

“To live an easy life, you have to align with the Divine part of yourself? In fact, you have to let it lead your life. This is not the same thing as waiting for some kind of Divine force outside of you to come swooping in to rescue you from your life. That’s not how it works. You have to make changes.”

She warns that the logical left-brain may find the information she shares challenging, the part that’s always looking for scientific proof, something that is increasingly being discovered in the metaphysical world, which means that many more people are seeing these kinds of developments as more mainstream than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

Christiane Northrup shares the turning point in her life that lead her to develop an interest in the true nature of self – of ego, spirits, souls and combined with her medical knowledge she developed a more holistic way of regarding the health of our emotional and spiritual bodies.

wisdom-oracleThe health and sexuality sections held less interest to me, probably because I was attracted to the book after listening to her speak in a ‘raw and real’ conversation with my favourite ‘intuitive’ Colette Baron-Reid, in that conversation it was the more spiritual aspects that were under discussion, particularly as Colette’s book Uncharted: The Journey through Uncertainty to Infinite Possibility had been published in October 2016. Northrup is a fan of Colette Baron-Reid and mentions that she uses her Wisdom of the Oracle card deck as one of her spiritual tools for guidance.

In fact, she makes quite a number of recommendations regarding authors and people whose work she is interested in and follows, so there is plenty for readers to follow-up on if interested.

“The connection between our thoughts, our emotions, our beliefs, and our biology has now been thoroughly documented by many, including Dr. Bruce Lipton in his book The Biology of Belief and Dr. Mario Martinez in his book The Mind Body Code – a book in which he also describes the devastating biological effects of shame, abandonment, and betrayal.”

She discusses astrology, prayer, ego, soul, medical mediums, communication with the divine, practises to raise your vibration and clear energies, signs and symbols, angels and synchronicity, dreams, oracle cards, tarot readings, psychics, explaining each thing and how people use them, sharing her own experience. She demystifies everything in a grounded, common sense way.

making-life-easy2She also discusses thoughts and inputs, the effect of what we are constantly exposed to and how it should be managed in order to avoid overdosing on negativity and the toxic, fear-enhancing effect of the media for example. She discusses the positive power of affirmations, meditation, gratitude, the power of giving and receiving, connecting with nature, tapping and much more.

“No human being has nervous, endocrine, and immune systems that were designed to process the negative news from all over the planet that’s being piped into their living room on a daily basis.”

“On a purely physical level, fear lowers our vibration and makes us far more susceptible to viruses and bacteria. The biochemical state that fear creates in our bodies adversely affects our immunity and increases our susceptibility to the pathological viruses and bacteria that are all around us.”

I think this will make a significant contribution to bringing a wider and more mainstream audience into the realm of the spirit and the divine, showing us alternative ways to navigate life’s mysterious pathways with faith, confidence, patience and compassion, providing us with small easy practises to help raise our vibration, reduce fear and be open to messages and signs.

“Inspiration from a higher source can’t reach you when you are in the low vibration of states like anger, sadness, and fear. To make life easy, we have to get out of our own way as we seek to get in touch with the Creator.”

souls-tribe

Click Here to Buy a Copy of Making Life Easy via Book Depository

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

Uncharted, The Journey Through Uncertainty to Infinite Possibility by Colette Baron-Reid

livia-unchartedI’ve been listening to Colette Baron Reid’s insights for a while, I often look up her wisdom cards online and follow her YouTube channel weekly forecast of the prevailing energies, something she calls a ‘prescription‘ for thinking about and working with our thoughts, feelings and beliefs as they encounter the energy that is presenting for the week.

She’s down to earth, has a sense of humour and doesn’t take herself too seriously. Her insights help us focus on whatever is happening in our life today or this week in a more healthy and objective way, it’s a kind of weekly wake-up call. Here’s an example of her cards, each one comes with an explanation, you can select them yourself on her website here. You’ll either relate to them or not, only use them if you find they resonate, if not, something else might work for you.

She’s continuously learning from others and sharing her insights and admits to having regular bouts of ‘spiritual narcolepsy’, her term for knowing what it is you should be doing to stay in equilibrium in your life, but falling asleep at the wheel.

“when you temporarily fall prey to fear or subconscious triggers that cause you to forget that you have a co-creative partnership with spirit, that you are in fact, a part of spirit. You forget that the material world is not the primary reality and start to look at outer conditions as a way to orient yourself, instead of tuning within to get where you’re at.”

I was intrigued to read her book and pre-ordered it in Sept 2016, giving me access to an incredible gift of ‘real and raw’ conversations she had with people whose work she admires like Gregg Braden, Joe Dispenza, Anita Moorjani (their conversation linked here), Dr. Cristiane Northrup and others. Those conversations provide an excellent pre-text for reading the book, because we understand more thoroughly where she is coming from and where she is currently at in her own evolution on the path of co-creation with spirit.

Anita Moorjani

Anita Moorjani

You may recall I reviewed Anita Moorjani’s book What if THIS Is Heaven? shortly after listening to their conversation. Anita Moorjani is an excellent speaker, and has a remarkable life story (which she writes about in her inspirational memoir Dying To Be Me, she is especially beneficial for anyone with health issues, or confronting a recent diagnosis, and for those in good health, how to stay there! Her tips aren’t what you usually hear from the medical profession, but make a lot of sense.

Uncharted isn’t as easy to absorb as those conversations are, because it forces the reader to participate and consider certain things while reading, whether you wish to or not. And a conversation contains questions and answers that we can perhaps more easily relate to, it’s more engaging to see people presenting a subject in conversation than writing about it. It is a book you’ll want to reread, it provides a way of looking at reality and preparing for the unknown in front of us, or the “uncharted” as she calls it.

Many people approach the unknown with fear, others with anticipation, regardless of how you perceive it, Colette offers a process of approaching that uncharted, unknown future reality, with more calm and greater confidence, through developing a relationship with spirit – by learning how to “co-create” with spirit, by following a process.

This process takes the reader through five realms of co-creation, the realm of spirit, of mind, of light, of energy and form. She talks about how mostly within our five senses (our small self), we spend most of our time and energy in that last realm of form, of action, of intellect, of making things happen. Co-creation takes a step back and considers another way of doing things, of seriously training and developing what some refer to as the sixth sense, but which she refers to as the first sense, intuition.

“Intuition is an inherent primary skill, our first sense, and a gift from the Realm of Spirit that we discover and use in the Realm of mind to access insights, information and energy the intellectual part of the mind can’t conceive.”

how-to-train-your-dragonIt’s a consciousness raising view of reality, one that will resonate with enlightened readers, empaths, those familiar with working with energies and the open-minded.

If you want to learn how to tame your dragons, this is a great place to start.

Highly Recommended!

Click Here to Buy a Copy of Uncharted

 

A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for His Mother by Jeremy Gavron

img_0485A Woman on the Edge of  Time is a memoir that reads like a mystery, as Jeremy Gavron, a journalist, interviews family, old school friends, neighbours and colleagues of his mother Hannah Gavron, whom he has little memory of.

It documents his long-delayed search for a greater understanding of why she took her own life at 29 years of age, a married, working mother of two boys aged four and seven, living in Highgate, London.

It was 1965, she had been on the cusp of publishing a manuscript encapsulating the findings of her sociology research into the conflicts faced by young housebound mothers in North London, The Captive Wife. It was two years since another mother of two young children Sylvia Plath, had done the same thing.

Hannah Gavron was an out-going, confident child, an accomplished, confident teenager, popular and desirous of growing up. She wanted to do something with her life, to share her views with the world, but she also wanted freedom, to leave the constraints of family, to be in love, to claim her place in a rapidly changing society. She married at 18, went to RADA drama school for a year, quit, had two children, then realising her prospects were limited, went back to university to study sociology, attained a PhD and then a teaching post at the “iconic British art institute”, renowned for its experimental and progressive approach, Hornsey College of Art.

It seemed she had everything going for her, and yet at that tender age of 29, when her youngest son Jeremy, was 4 years old, she took her own life, shocking everyone around her.

Now the father of two girls himself, having previously just accepted the subject of his mother was a taboo subject never raised, he is seized by an urgency to know and understand the mystery, for how could it happen that a woman with so much going for her, two small children and a manuscript about to heighten her career, could suddenly end it all?

He interviews an extraordinary number of people and succeeds in recreating the jigsaw of Hannah’s life in incredible detail and begins to understand the multiple forces that may have played a part in leading up to that tragic decision.

As gripping as any mystery, it reads like a pageturner providing an interesting insight into the subject Hannah Gavron wrote her thesis about, ‘The Captive Wife’ and the struggle of women in the early 1960’s, a period just prior to the second wave of feminism, an era whose attitudes and dilemmas were encapsulated in Doris Lessing’s powerful account of a woman searching for her personal and political identity, The Golden Notebook, published in 1962.

 

Looking back from our own times, the subject seems an obvious one, still relevant today, but in 1960 it was neither obvious nor easy for her to get past her academic supervisors. For all the advances gained by the suffragette movement, and the opportunities the war had given woman to work and experience life beyond family,  the woman’s movement was in retreat in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. in the post-war period, emphasis had been put on the role of motherhood in rebuilding Britain. The Beveridge Report, the basis for social reforms, spoke of how ‘housewives as mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British race and of British ideals in the world’.

A woman attempting to forge an academic career in sociology at the time and proposing studies which focused on women as the subject, was provocative and a gesture not ready to be accepted by many in power in academia.

In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport

In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport

It reminded me of reading Nancy Rappaport’s In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide, she too was 4 years old when her mother, who was raising a large family as well as being involved in organising society events and political campaigning, suddenly committed suicide. That drama took place in 1963 in Boston.

They are tragic stories and serve to create a more substantial memory for the authors, piecing together the lives of these woman who should have been able to contribute so much more than they did.

It left me wondering about the author himself, as he keeps himself well out of the narrative, not shining any light on how it had been for him to grow up under this shadow, this absence. How was it for him to accept the love of another mother, how might this turning point have influenced who he would become. Rather he shines his light outward and builds an incredibly detailed vision of his mother, leaving just a hint of suggestion that within her, we may also finds parts of him.

Further Reading

The Guardian, Nov 2015 – Jeremy Gavron: ‘My mother was a woman who looked for solutions. Suicide was a solution’

The Guardian, Apr 2009 – ‘Tell the Boys I Loved Them’

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson

why-be-happyThis stylised memoir, set in the working-class north of England, is the book Jeanette Winterson wasn’t ready to write back in 1985 when at 25 years of age, she wrote the novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a book that plunged the reader into her universe, one that provided the author the liberty of narrating freely, without the confines of the story having to have been exactly as she had lived it – it was fiction, an imagined story, and she named the main character Jeanette, a provocative gesture for sure.

It was indeed inspired by her own experience, as we discover when she braved it and published this memoir nearly 30 years later (her adopted mother no longer living or able to be disapproving of her work), providing for the title, a quote from the mother who had been unable to shape the little human she acquired into her version of a normal daughter.

In her memoir she allows the real life characters to reveal parts of themselves, in particular Jeanette and the woman who raised her, whom she refers to as Mrs Winterson (her adoptive mother), a telling detail in itself, that she reserves the title of mother for the woman who is a shadowy illusion for most of the narrative; not there, not looked for, a vague presence in her psyche that she continuously rejects the thought of, her biological mother. I did wonder whether this was a literary invention or whether she actually did refer to her adoptive mother as Mrs W. It makes quite a statement.

‘I do not know why she didn’t/couldn’t have children. I know that she adopted me because she wanted a friend (she had none), and because I was like a flare sent out into the world – a way of saying  that she was here – a kind of X marks the spot.

She hated being a nobody, and like all children, adopted or not, I have had to live out some of her unlived life. We do that for our parents – we don’t really have any choice.’

Despite what was likely to have been a desperate desire for a child, Mrs W. dolled out punishments and criticisms more than any form of affection or love for her chosen child. When her mother was angry with her, Mrs W. often repeated one of her preferred biblical phrases “The Devil lead us to the wrong crib”. The Church was like family (though unsuccessful in helping them make friends) and the Bible one of only five books in the house, the one referred to most often. The most regular punishment however, was to lock her in the coal-scuttle or out on the door stoop – for the whole night.

‘Dad’s on the night shift, so she can go to bed, but she won’t sleep. She’ll read the Bible all night, and when Dad comes home, he’ll let me in, and he’ll say nothing, and she’ll say nothing, and we’ll act like it’s normal to leave your kid outside all night, and normal never to sleep with your husband. And normal to have two sets of false teeth, and a revolver in the duster drawer…’

It is a collection of anecdotes, written in a way to make the reader present, it’s not like reading an account of the past, it’s reliving days in the life of this fierce little battler, a girl who had a zest for life, who used her locked up time to invent imaginary characters, who made up stories, who forged her own personality through, who would not be tamed, who left home while still at school, taught herself to drive, lived in a car for a while and remarkably pushed herself forward as one of the ‘experimental’ working-class contenders for a place at Oxford University and succeeded.

Jeanette Winterson Photo by Sanhita SinhaRoy

Jeanette Winterson, Photo by Sanhita SinhaRoy

Jeanette Winterson writes her own story, forged over a past she didn’t know, that she tried to convince herself wasn’t important until driven almost mad and finally would follow through to unravel the missing link.

Her experience with Mrs Winterson is told with as much compassion as is possible, the facts related in a way that leaves the reader to judge and most will wonder why Mrs Winterson desired a child or was deemed fit to be given one at all.

It is an extraordinary account of childhood and growing up, of what home is, of how we perceive and learn love, of adoption, of how those formative years contribute into making us what we will become and that mysterious ‘other life’ that might have been, when you’ve been switched to alternative parentage post birth.

I never wanted to find my birth parents – if one set of parents felt like a misfortune, two sets would be self-destructive. I had no understanding of family life. I had no idea that you could like your parents, or that they could love you enough to be yourself.
I was a loner. I was self-invented. I didn’t believe in biology or biography. I believed in myself. Parents? What for? Except to hurt you.

It is also a tribute to literature and to the power of stories to influence lives, whether they are an escape for those who need refuge and to understand the world around them, or whether they are the occupation of the oppressed, a creative outlet for someone with nothing but their imagination to keep them entertained while enduring their struggle.

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