Fiction – paperback; William Heinemann Australia; 346 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the author.
It seems somehow appropriate to review Susan Johnson’s new novel, Life in Seven Mistakes, on Christmas Eve given that the book is set at Christmas — although this is not how I planned it. I read this book in October and kept meaning to post my thoughts about it. As ever, life got in the way, and it’s only now, with the fairy lights twinkling in my living room and my traditional chocolate festive cake baking in the oven that I feel inclined to put my thoughts down on paper.
Christmas in the sun
The book opens on “a blistering December afternoon” on Australia’s Gold Coast. The Barton family, which is spread across the continent, gathers at the parental home — a penthouse in Surfers Paradise — for the Christmas holidays. But this is no carefree, happy family get-together. There are underlying tensions and complicated family relationships with which to contend. It takes the reader a little time to come to terms with the wide cast of characters, but it is forty-something Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Bob and Nancy Barton, whose eyes we largely experience the “celebrations” through.
Married three times, and with three children from three different fathers, Elizabeth has not lead a conventional life. She’s a ceramicist on the brink of international success — she has a show in New York coming up and one at the Australian Embassy in Washington — and yet her parents don’t take her career seriously, particularly her 70-something father who equates success with being rich.
‘You know what depresses me most?’ Elizabeth says. ‘How infantilised I become around them. Out there in the world I am an adult, with a career and a husband and a house. People buy my work and articles are written about it in art magazines. I’m about to have my first show at the best ceramics gallery in the world. I am a mother myself, for God’s sake, with three children who depend on me. Yet Dad only has to start bagging artists and I’m like a kid trying to get his approval by showing him my best finger painting. Or Mum says something in a certain tone of voice and I turn into a ten year old.’
If that’s not enough Elizabeth has to contend with a younger brother, Robbo, who is “loud and uncomplicated” and the apple of her mother’s eye.
He was Nancy’s joy, a boy who made her laugh and for years and years Elizabeth was jealous of him.
And then there’s the never-mentioned youngest sibling Nick, a long-term drug user — “the ghoul at the table, who always rises, covered in ash” — who is in a low-security “correctional centre”.
Throw in difficult spouses and an assortment of children, and it’s no wonder Elizabeth finds the strain of Christmas almost too much to bear. Heightening this tension is Bob and Nancy’s impending golden wedding anniversary, just four days after Christmas, upon which no one can agree how to celebrate appropriately.
Intertwined with this rather complicated, and at times funny, family drama is a second narrative that explores Bob and Nancy’s life together, from lovestruck teenagers in the 1950s to hard-bitten parents trying to maintain control over three teenage children.
It is this beautifully written element of the story that makes Bob and Nancy come alive in the eyes of the reader. You learn the source of Nancy’s current primness, her forthright opinions on rearing children and her staunch support for Bob in the face of what others view as his ongoing rudeness, and you gain an admiration for Bob — patronising, loud and overbearing as a retiree — who worked his way up the career ladder from labourer to managing director of a major company through sheer bloody hard work, all the while supporting his family.
Life in Seven Mistakes has been described as a black comedy, but I’m not sure that’s an apt description. While there are funny moments throughout the book, for the most part this is a richly layered family drama imbued with emotion. There’s plenty of thought-provoking material here to mull over too: How do you ever reconcile your childhood with your adult life? How do parents cope with children who don’t live up to expectation? At what point do you learn to accept responsibility for your own life and your own mistakes?
My only quibble with the book — and it’s a minor one — is Johnson’s tendency in places to be a little long-winded with the narrative and to over-explain things, but for the most part the prose style is effortless and authentically Australian. (Maybe it’s me, but whenever Bob spoke I heard his voice in a distinctly ocker accent, aka Australian acting legend Bill Hunter.)
But it’s the somewhat unexpected ending, which ties everything together nicely, that rounds out this lovely tragic-comedy of a novel and makes it one of my favourites reads of the year.