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COMMON READER – Second Half First by Drusilla Modjeska


Common Reader returns for 2016! A weekly segment where one of our contributors reviews a text of their choice – this week Adalya explores Second Half First by Drusilla Modjeska 

Drusilla Modjeska’s Second Half First is a memoir that is not exactly easy to describe. Indeed, Modjeska herself struggles when faced with the task of explaining it to an ex-partner. “You’re the trigger, not the subject,” she says “…It’s about a whole lot of other things, my mother, psychoanalysis, reading, writing, New Guinea, living away from where I was born,” and indeed it is about all of these things, but I think for many readers there is still more to take from Modjeska’s memoir.

As the title – Second Half First – suggests, the work largely focuses on the later years of Modjeska’s life, starting on the eve of her fortieth birthday and taking us through her progression as a writer, her founding of SEAM (a literacy program in Papua New Guinea) and ultimately to her completion of the book we are reading.

In reflecting on her life, Modjeska regularly comes back to how writing, stories and art more generally can move and in some way come to define us.

“Books don’t solve grief, or erase it, but they can, and do, give shape and language to experience that at the time leaves us inchoate, literally without words. For the writer and for the reader.”

The pleasure taken in books and literacy by the Papuan’s who Modjeska’s literacy program SEAM works with shows this, but so too do the stories she is told by the women she meets and forms relationships with in the Papuan villages as she prepares her own story and only novel, The Mountain.

One of the unusual factors of this memoir is its constant consciousness of the greater form of which it is a part.

Modjeska’s memoir is not a tell-all drama, indeed it is quite the opposite as she openly acknowledges events which she is not willing to write on for the sake of others, quoting Doris Lessing when she states that “nothing is personal in the sense that it is uniquely your own.”

Whilst much time is spent with the characters and events of her life, at least as much time is spent with others, such as Virginia Woolfe, Christina Stead and Rebecca West. The effortless movement between the details of her life and those of other writers and artists whose work she admires to me felt like a more direct insight into Modjeska’s thoughts and outlook than the sordid details would have.

To the extent that her life is revealed however, we see the life of an older woman as is often forgotten; a complicated, sometimes beautiful and sometimes devastating affair. In other words, a life.

And this is perhaps what struck me most about Second Half First. As a young person, and particularly a young woman, it can often be strange to imagine life beyond 40, or even 30.

The vast majority of media is so focused on youth that the women who are presented to me as potential role models are often barely older than I am, and then who really knows what happens to us after that.

That we still learn and grow and have complicated lives as we age is something which should be obvious, but which I often forget.

Not all of Modjeska’s outlooks or experiences were relatable to me. I didn’t look and see a mirror of the life I expect or dream of but I saw the life of an older woman (a woman the same age as my grandmother) as it could be and is, just as intricate and in many ways novel as youth. Modjeska herself meditates on this almost in inverse as she watches the newest generation of her family ground themselves in their environment.

“How young it starts, that need to know where we are and where we are going. And how long it lasts.”

Rewiew written by Adalya Nash Hussein




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