Reviewed by Anne Henderson.
After By Nikki Gemmell,
- Publisher: Fourth Estate 2017
- ISBN 978 1 4607 5305 7 (hb)
- ISBN 978 1 4607 0769 2 (pb)
- RRP – $29.99 hb
As a writer, Nikki Gemmell is honest, imaginative, daring and emotionally charged. These qualities have taken her to international best seller status – especially with her sensationally provocative The Bride Stripped Bare where her attempt at remaining anonymous failed.
Over two decades, Gemmell has poured out a gold plated list of works ranging from absorbing fiction to children’s books to thought provoking non-fiction works, and weekly spin offs from there in her columns in the Australian’s Weekend Magazine.
In her latest work, After, Gemmell reaches her most emotionally charged writing yet – at early moments in the book this emotion is somewhat less than compelling but, as it unravels, that same emotion takes on a complexity that is not just artistically and beautifully wrought but deeply confronting in its honesty, along with Gemmell’s ability to strip things bare without invading others’ personal space in what is a very raw family memoir.
After as a title captures all levels of the personal experience behind this tale. Stemming from her mother’s suicide, Gemmell records, in what at times feel like stabbing flashbacks, a gamut of extended family history – individual aspirations, a mother/daughter, love and hate relationship and its complex play of emotions, eventually leading to a journey of discovery for Gemmell that takes her into the whole debate over euthanasia.
In her novel Headlong, writer Susan Varga chose fiction to write of euthanasia coming from her own experiences with a beautiful and aging mother who wanted to end her life and who eventually did so in a tragic way. Such are the regulations and laws around taking one’s own life, death of a loved one that breaches these can involve charges for any family members who are seen to have aided a loved one’s death.
For Gemmell, non-fiction is the key – as it happened and why. For Gemmell, everything came “after” her mother’s death – even so she was subjected to police inquiry to establish she was not involved. But the fact that Gemmell’s mother Elayn kept all her attempts to end her life a secret, and then took her life in an overdose washed down with alcohol, there was no collusion or warning for Nikki or her brothers. The shock was overwhelming for Nikki until, as the writer who writes to understand herself, Gemmell took to the public record and poured out her immediate experience in one of her weekly columns.
The reaction was huge. From here, a book was the next step.
After goes way beyond the initial events surrounding Elyan’s suicide to an unfolding of the details Elayn’s life, her strengths and weaknesses as both woman, mother and grandmother, the extended family around her with its bonds, its cracks, its loves and omissions, its hurt and its joys. After is as much about the aftermath of a family suicide, and whether that mother may have been saved from what led to it, as a whole series of “afters” from reflection on what Nikki and her mother had together, secrets that emerge from Elayn’s life, even how her grandchildren coped with her loss and the host of emotions that have to be handled when a loved one goes and a grandchild needs to know why. It touches poignantly on the grief as much as the guilt. The regrets as much as the explanations. And always the questions.
Elayn Gemmell was in many ways a woman of her generation at the same time as one ahead of it. Her divorce from Nikki’s father when Nikki was 10 – the youngest of Elayn’s three children – was a modern step where she set out to be a working woman again, not just a mother in the suburbs. Elayn had worked as a photographic model before her marriage coming out of the sleepy world of the Hunter Valley to the excitement of Sydney. Her marriage to a miner took her back to regional living with a husband who resented her desire to have paid work.
As a single mother, Elayn took Nikki to live with her while her younger son remained with his father. The mother/daughter relationship stemmed especially from then, with Elayn being more a mother of her time than one ahead of it, forcing her aspirations on her scholarship bright daughter through elocution lessons in the hope Nikki would star academically, possibly do medicine and go on to marry well and so forth. Nikki certainly starred academically but wanted something quite different. Elayn’s mothering was dominant and controlling with Nikki eventually moving away to various outposts and finally London.
The publisher’s blurb for After predicts that it will start a lot of conversations. And it will. The whole issue of euthanasia comes to life as Gemmell tracks her way through her mother’s last years, her deteriorating health which was not life threatening so much as lifestyle threatening as is so often the case with aging. For the modern beautiful grandmother who had no interest in playing nursemaid to Nikki’s children, life became increasingly lonely in spite of seeing her family at occasions of get togethers and outings for grandchildren who really loved her.
But the crucial event was the chronic pain Elayn developed after a foot operation. Her hints to her daughter that she would rather end her life went unnoted. Nikki admits that her reaction was typical of most, that she could not believe her mother actually meant it and that she would find successful treatment eventually. But, Elayn had very poor medical advice – this Nkki realises much later when she discovers a Sydney group who assist in pain management at the Royal North Shore Hospital.
After evolves by the end into a passionate defence of the right of those with serious illnesses to be able to euthanise. This certainly will lead to advanced discussions out of Elayn Gemmell’s death. But, for me, the most important discussion it opens up are the many factors surrounding our lives as parents, children, grandparents and siblings and the way we manage our confrontations, relationships and years together. Elayn was secretive and kept her immediate family at a distance in her personal pains and endeavours. She died alone not just because she could not legally euthanise but because she had increasingly led a secret life.
Gemmell uses a delightful extended metaphor in After. A set of porcelain lanterns made by Nikki’s children over years in the UK are smashed in a gust of wind. Later they are repaired in the style of Kintsugi so that they are put back on display to once again reflect the light of their candles through not just the porcelain but also the jagged cracks in their repair. Another sort of beauty. Another “after”. Like the way we repair our relationships and bonds in a long life journey.
Gemmell’s journey is now a public one – the book a gift from Elayn to her daughter, and from Nikki to Elayn. It is also a riveting read.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History