20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘The Broken Book’ by Susan Johnson

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 306 pages; 2004.

Susan Johnson’s The Broken Book is a novel inspired by the work of Australian ex-pat writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, who moved to the Greek islands in the 1950s (and which is depicted so beautifully in Clift’s twin memoirs Mermaid  Singing and Peel Me a Lotus) to concentrate on their creative lives while bringing up a young family.

I read it hot on the heels of Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers, another novel that uses the Clift-Johnston story as inspiration, but found Johnson’s novel more eloquent, more literary — and more heartbreaking.

Multi-layered story

The Broken Book is complex and multi-layered. It reimagines Charmain Clift as a would-be writer called Katherine Elgin who is working on a manuscript called ‘The Broken Book’.

‘The Broken Book’ is about a character called Cressida Morley who falls pregnant at a time when unmarried mothers were frowned upon, bringing great shame upon her family, which is headed by a local newspaper editor.

Cressida Morley, as it turns out, is the name of a character that pops up in George Johnston’s novels and is said to be based on Clift. (And for those who don’t know, Clift had a secret child who was adopted out before she married Johnston, so everything in this extraordinary novel mirrors real life albeit with a creative spin.)

Twin narratives

These two narrative threads — Katherine’s story, which spans three decades and includes her time living in Sydney, London and Greece, and the half-written manuscript she’s working on about Cressida — are interleaved to create a complex tale that explores what it is like to pursue a creative life, how difficult it can be to balance marriage and motherhood, and how a woman’s beauty (and sexual agency) can stifle all else.

It is written in elegant prose dripping with metaphor and meaning, the kind of writing that isn’t afraid to explore emotional truths.

I used to believe there was a pattern to life, or at least you could see in retrospect where a particular life had twisted itself into the wrong shape, buckled by rogue bad luck. I used to think my moment came when a handsome young man who smelled like Sunlight Soap burst like a firework inside me, turning me incandescent. Now I don’t think there is any pattern, any shape whatsoever. All is randomness, chance.

2006 edition

I ate this book up in a matter of days. There’s something about the mood of it  — romantic, melancholy, nostalgic — that is hard to pin down but which envelopes the reader even after this extraordinarily wise and passionate novel has been finished.

I realise I haven’t really explained much about it, but it’s a difficult story to describe. The joy of the book is just letting the dual narratives, which inform one another as they jump back and forth across decades, wash over you.

The Broken Book was shortlisted for the 2005 Nita B Kibble Award; the Best Fiction Book section of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award; the Westfield/Waverley Library Literary Award; and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal Award for an Outstanding Australian Literary Work. It can be ordered “print on demand” via the publisher’s website.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2021 and my 19th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it secondhand earlier this year having read, and loved, many of Susan Johnson’s previous novels.

18 thoughts on “‘The Broken Book’ by Susan Johnson”

  1. Sounds like a lovely little book – I love the quote that you have. A kind of all consuming book that helps you jump into the world.
    I also like the idea of the dual narrative that informs each other. It’s a kind of book I wouldn’t have liked based on the front cover but after your review it’s probably one I would want to read to escape from lockdown.

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    1. It’s a gorgeous novel… complex and literary and full of ideas and interesting themes. I read it back to back with the Samson novel, which, in turn, I had read back to back with the Clift memoirs so I feel like I’ve had a tumultuous trip to the Greek isles this month!

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  2. Hmm. I thought it couldn’t be available in the UK when I first looked – but apparently it is, though hard to track down for some reason. I’ll look out for this after your strong recommendation.

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    1. It was definitely published in the UK because Susan lived there for a long time. I thought it was out of print but Allen & Unwin confirmed it’s a “print on demand” title so technically it’s not. I really loved this book. It resonated strongly because of the Clift memoirs and the Samson novel that I read before this one, and because I am also familiar with George Johnston’s trilogy of novels (which star a character called Cressida). I love how everything is connected.

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  3. It is a lovely book, the first of her novels that I read. I featured Susan in Meet an Aussie Author a while back, but I don’t have my own review of TBB, so I’ve linked to this review:)
    I read it, BTW, without having read either Johnson or Clift, and it worked fine for me though obviously it would have been even better if I had.

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    1. Thanks, Lisa, I did see that ‘ping back’ and wondered what it was about!

      I actually think this is the best Susan Johnson novel I have read – it’s just wonderful. Good to know you don’t need to have read all the Clift-Johnson stuff, that it reads as a standalone novel.

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  4. I read this around the time it came out, and enjoyed it. Around the same time I read Searching for Charmian by Suzanne Chick, who was Charmian adopted-out daughter. She found out who her mother was, as I recollect, just after Charmian died, but she did meet other members of the family.

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    1. Unfortunately, Searching for Charmian is out of print, because I tried to find it earlier in the year when I was getting my stack of “Charmian books” ready to read. There’s some second hand copies knocking about on the internet but they’re fairly expensive…

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