Nikki Gemmell is an important Australian author. A true statement but I feel the tugging of “, I think”. I’m not sure that the literary world in general agrees with me, though her wikipedia entry, maybe written by a fan, says:
In France she has been described as a “female Jack Kerouac”. In 2007, the French literary magazine Lire included her in a list of what it called the fifty most important writers in the world – those it believed would have a significant influence on the literature of the 21st century.
Here, in Oz, her uncompromising inner views of women attempting to make a path for themselves in a hostile world and the staccato poetry of her language are no match for say the boyish charms of her contemporary, the people’s favourite Tim Winton.
Gemmell’s early novels are, in order, Shiver (1997), Cleave – originally published as Alice Springs (1998), Love Song (2002) and The Bride Stripped Bare (2003). I get the impression that she is gradually stripping away all extraneous action, increasingly focusing her attention inwards on women finding their way in a sexual world, and experimenting as she goes with the language to express that. [That is a para from my earlier review of Love Song (here) – not quoting, just reusing].
Her subsequent novels have been The Book of Rapture (2009), With My Body (2011), I Take You (2013) and there have been a number of works of non-fiction. Which brings us to After (2017) a memoir written in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide.
In the fraught world of euthanasia, I say this: if the perpetrator’s family cannot, by law, be involved in the wishes of the person wanting to die, then you’re condemning that person to a horrendously bleak and lonely death.
We begin in the morgue, in an ante-room, Nikki and her brother Paul, the older brother Andrew choosing to be absent, remaining absent throughout, about to ‘identify’ their mother’s body – a redundant ritual now you’d say, though Gemmell doesn’t – the police with them supportive but also closely watchful, alert for signs, for evidence, that a crime may have been committed, that the obvious suicide, by an overdose of pills in the comfort of her lounge room, may have been ‘assisted’.
This is close up and personal, Nikki’s grief is visceral, its depth and immediacy expressed in broken sentences. But. Gemmell is a writer, a producer of literary output. So this is written from the heart, yes, but then rewritten and rewritten, packaged by a major publisher and presented to us to consume. Polished in its unpolishedness you might say. A writer must always say ‘look at how well I suffer’, her greatness being in making us forget that we are not looking at suffering but at a, at her, depiction of suffering.
The sense of abandonment. Here. In this place. The obscenity of that. The shell of our mother, the skin on her face already sinking into the hollows of her skull. Giving her that distinct, distancing, mask of death. It is not Elayn but an eviscerating absence more skull than life. It is our mother. It is not.
Gemmell’s mother found marriage too constricting, had left Bob her worker husband of twenty years forty years earlier, taken Nikki aged then 10, “the court ordered the boys to stay with their father”, left Wollongong for life in the big smoke, changed her name from the prosaic Elaine, “set about turning herself into who she really wanted to be”.
It is not clear that who she really wanted to be was a mother, and Nikki and Elayn bang heads for eight years until Nikki manages to leave home.
When I was young Elayn would fling, ‘No one likes you.’ When I craved prettiness, ‘You’re so ugly.’ When I didn’t measure up in terms of a daughter, ‘Why can’t you be like … She wanted them but had me, her swotty clod of a thing. That could write.
Elayn hated Bob all the rest of her life and resented that Nikki didn’t. Elayn had been a model, there are photos of her throughout the book, and Nikki isn’t, though elocution lessons did get her into the national broadcaster. Elayn works and buys an old three bedroom flat in Sydney’s eastern, beachside suburbs and reinvents herself as a glamorous theatre goer. Years later Nikki is shocked to find that the flat is a tip inside, all her mother’s declining strength having been expended on external appearances.
Nikki marries, lives in London, has four children, exchanges brief visits with her mother, finally comes home, purchases a house in a neighbouring suburb and spends the final five years still banging heads but making she thinks, some progress. The last of those years is spent by Elayn in crippling pain after a botched operation, and you could hardly blame her for considering euthanasia. But without discussion or warning? In the week of her oldest and loved grandson’s Year 12 exams!
Gemmell is a weekly columnist in the Australian. She must have written something, her bewilderment at her mother’s choice. A chapter is devoted to readers’ responses. I skim it. Dr Philip Nitshke of Exit International tweets:
Nikki, it was empowerment! – your mother joined, #euthanasia PP Handbook, asked Exit forum Qs and imported.
So, Elayn’s death had been planned and kept secret for months. Gemma meets and becomes friends with a doctor who has suffered chronic pain and who with the full support of her children is planning to end her life in Switzerland where it is legal. Becomes more understanding of the problems of chronic pain and her own lack of awareness of her mother’s opioid drug addiction.
Writing this book is therapy, “Six months since the writing was begun, the maelstrom of bewilderment that was this book. Now, finally, stilled.” It’s an interesting work, but not her best. The edgy young woman of the earlier works is now a suburban mum and a Murdoch hack finding some peace in restoring her children’s valued porcelain pieces, smashed in a storm at around the time of her mother’s death, in line with the Japanese philosophy Kintsugi, to embrace the repair of an object as an aspect of its history, using lacquer mixed with powdered gold, which has acted as a metaphor throughout the work.
I checked the AWW Challenge site (here) and found only eight reviews for works by Gemmell – mine of Love Song not there so I’ll have to upset the statistics again (!) and include a back entry – which rather proves my case that she doesn’t receive much attention.
Nikki Gemmell, After, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2017
see also: My review of Love Song here