Half Life by Jillian Cantor

‘What if…’

Maria Skłodowska had married Kazimierz Zorawski and never left Poland? As Marie Curie (7 November 1867 to 4 July 1934) she was a hero of mine: a scientist, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to win a Nobel Prize twice. I cannot imagine her life lived in any other way.

But Ms Cantor could. In this novel, Ms Cantor explores Marie Curie’s real life and imagines an alternative life which involves many of the same characters. The novel opens and closes with Marie on her deathbed, examining the choices she had made:

‘In the end, my world is dark. My bones are tired, my marrow failing. I have given my whole life to my work, but now, science brings me no comfort.’

This is ‘my’ Marie Curie: the scientist I admire. But there is always more to a life. I learned that in 1891 she had been engaged to Kazimierz Zorawski. Apparently, he broke off the engagement when his mother insisted that Maria Skłodowska was not good enough for him. Oh, the irony! What, I wonder, would Maria Zorawska have achieved?

The story shifts between the real Marie Curie and the fictional Marya Zorawska. I really enjoyed Marie Curie’s story but was less caught up in Marya Zorawska’s imagined life. I appreciated that Ms Cantor was showing some of the challenges posed within Poland (then under Russian control) for women. Educational opportunities for women were restricted, and Marya Zorawska was every bit as intelligent and driven as Marie Curie. I quite liked the alternate life imagined but I could not successfully envisage the same characters playing different roles in the different stories.

I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in Marie Curie as well as to anyone with an interest in the status of women in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

‘There was a choice. There was always a choice. Had I made the wrong one?’

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith