Maggie Gee begins writing her memoir at a religious foundation, St Cuthman's retreat near Billingshurst, where she spent part of her childhood, and finishes it at non-denominational Hawthornden Castle, the writers' centre in Scotland. Bookended and buttressed in this way by solid spaces for silence and dreaming as well as composition, the words of her life-story build more than a room of her own: a whole airy house of meditation. A house of spirit. A house of flesh.
Gee asks "questions- to which I do not know the answer... Can I save my belief in the soul from my love of science?" We sense her wishing to close the gap between human and animal worlds. This entails doubting the existence of heaven, accepting death's finality, celebrating "this astonishing living moment" between "two endless nights... Life!... From nothing, we are ourselves, moving and breathing, here. Suddenly, this is our chance; our luck, our animal luck." The soul, as a moving final chapter clarifies, becomes "the net of connections that haloes every consciousness, linked to the future as well as the past, streaming both towards and outwards from our bodies".
A brush with illness that's possibly terminal (her fears are groundless and she is declared completely healthy) inspires Gee to start her new book by cherishing the beauty of the present, the "dip and swoop" of the house-martins scooping up insects outside her window. Her narrative curves back and forth like those birds, darting between past and present in free-associative spirals, with chronology a springboard for ideas. While chronicling the successes (and pitfalls) of an artist's life, My Animal Life paints a fine, honest, complex portrait of an artist's mind.
Children ask: what made me? Gee's answer seems to be: myths and stories, genetics, family. None offers a simple route towards forming a self. On the one hand, she describes struggling to break free from her restrictive background, claiming her right to think independently, and on the other she reveals her interest in genealogy, the myriad couples behind her parents' forebears; she is one speck among many.
Two kinds of working-class culture frame her birth in 1948. Her father's family, the Gees, are characterised by "dogged determination, self-belief, drive, competitiveness at sport and life, on the plus side tenacious loyalty and a mission to do something good in the world, on the minus – I see it in myself – a tendency to be sanctimonious, and at our worst, grandiose". On the other hand, her mother's family, the Churches, are "supple, easy-going, anarchic, witty... self-interested, sensual, unsentimental, potentially criminal". In her immediate family, her father Vic "was frightening and sometimes aggressive"; "when conflict was overt, he would always carry the day'." Her compassion interwoven with anger, Gee shows us an eccentric man so over-sensitive that he dislikes going out and needs to stay in complete control of wife, children and environment; needy and desperate as any baby.
Acutely and generously, she grants him his complete humanity. Much later, describing how her mother left home and then was coaxed back, she shockingly drops in her mother's revelation that subsequently Vic no longer hit her. At home Vic hit his own children too. On one French trip, when Margaret, larking with new friends, breaks his curfew, he beats her up.
On the same holiday, an army conscript tries to rape her. Her mother, vulnerable and beaten herself, is not strong enough to protect her daughter: how painful that must have been for the young woman who loved her. There's no-one she can tell about these traumatic events. She sits her exams, watches "things float away from me... everything turned blank and grey... an alternation of emptiness and terror".
Higher education saves her. Winning a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, she leaves home. Perhaps the splitting she describes between mind, body and heart saves her too. New experiences of love change and inspire her. Beloved women friends, clever, kind and brave, arrive and stay for life. Lots of sex is available. Gee leaps into the complicated male-female skirmishes the new Pill allows, explores pleasure. She embarks on a long and happy marriage, gives birth to an adored child, produces much-admired books. We rejoice along with her. We salute her animal luck she inherits, her soul-filled animal life she creates.
Michèle Roberts's 'Mud: stories of sex and love' is published by Virago in JuneReuse content