Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, Greece, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘Aphrodite’s Breath’ by Susan Johnson

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2023. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

There’s a long tradition of people heading abroad to try living in a different country and then writing about it. But I’d wager few have embarked on such an adventure with their 85-year-old widowed mother in tow.

This is what the Australian writer Susan Johnson did when she decided to move from Brisbane, Australia, to the Greek island of Kythera — the birthplace of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty.

Aphrodite’s Breath, subtitled “A mother and daughter’s Greek island adventure”, is a frank and funny memoir. It’s as much about the island’s culture, landscape, history and people as it is about the mother-daughter relationship and the tensions that threaten to unravel it.

The narrative, which spans a couple of years, moves from Brisbane to Greece and back again, via side trips to Paris and London, with the threat of the pandemic somewhere in the middle.

But it’s the first few months of the adventure that pose the greatest challenges. The pre-arranged car doesn’t eventuate, the rented house lacks modern amenities and the winter weather is perishingly cold and unforgivably windy. Then there’s the whole language barrier.

And mother and daughter don’t always see eye to eye about everything.

Mother-daughter tensions

Much of the book deals with the inherent and unspoken tensions within the relationship: Susan is a dutiful daughter who always thinks of her mother’s comfort; Barbara, who is used to the finer things in life, is flinty, headstrong and opinionated.

The more time they spend in each other’s company, the more Susan realises their differences. It comes to a head with a fiery argument only two months into their stay: Barbara wants to go home.

I know I had benefited from many advantages that Mum never had, most notably a university education, and I was forced to examine whether I was guilty of implying my tastes and opinions were superior to hers. As far as I could tell, apart from being a smartypants and falling into womansplaining, I hadn’t paraded any supposed supremacy over her but had done my best to secure her ease and comfort.

Barbara does get her own way in the end, returning home to Australia, but Susan remains in Greece, working on the edits of her previous book (From Where I Fell, reviewed here), writing this one, befriending the locals — a wonderfully varied cast of characters — and embarking on a short-lived romance.

Her reflections on this new life are forthright, unflinchingly honest and often self-deprecating.

Equally, her analysis of what makes a writer and how the art of writing can lay bare the truth at the expense of friends and loved ones is open and candid. Here’s how she puts it in the prologue:

If to photograph people is to violate them, as Susan Sontag suggests, turning them into objects hat can be symbolically possessed, what does writing them do? Perhaps even before we left home, I was the violator, my mother the violated.

Island life

But it’s Susan’s deeply felt personal connection to Kythera, a place she first visited in her youth, that really transforms this memoir into something that feels meaningful and passionate.

That first dawn, the sun lying pale in the sky as if dipped in water, as if it was not lying in the sky at all but in the sea. The village outlined, on the opposite hill, against the dawn sky, the singular cut of trees, buildings, stones; timeless, ancient. In the watery morning sun I wandered down the stony road, emerging into the rustle of pine trees, the wind rising, the sound like the breaking of waves upon an unseen ocean. The fizzing of electricity in the powerlines. The fizzing of my blood.

Her descriptions of the island, its culture and its people are vivid and lyrical (as the above quote attests).

Her interest in history, sense of curiosity and journalistic eye for a story have her tracing the tragic life of Rosina Kasmati, the daughter of one of Kythera’s wealthiest families, who was committed to a psychiatric institution in the mid-19th century after her marriage to an upper-class Irishman fell apart. The couple’s second son, Lafcardio Hearn, became a famous writer (Wikipedia entry here).

Susan’s own personal tragedies mark the end of Aphrodite’s Breath  (tissues are required), but this is a luminous, life-affirming memoir with all the qualities of a finely crafted novel.

Finally, in the spirit of transparency, I know the author personally, but this has not influenced my review. I was surprised to see my name (alongside dozens of others) mentioned in the Acknowledgements!

12 thoughts on “‘Aphrodite’s Breath’ by Susan Johnson”

  1. *pout*
    I’m still waiting on a copy of this from the library.
    (I’d buy it, but Amber has been impacting the budget with a seasonal allergy. ($600 so far, and we’re not out of the woods yet.)
    There is an Australian novel about a mother-daughter trip that shares similar tensions: Jacinta Halloran’s Pilgrimage (2012), in which a secular daughter travels with a deeply religious mother to Europe in the hope of a miracle to save her from Motor Neurone Disease. It’s very good, if you can find a copy.


    1. Oh, sorry to hear about Amber. Hope the allergy treatment is working!

      Thanks for the tip off re: Pilgrimage. I’ll see if I can hunt it down.

      In the meantime, very happy to send you my copy of Aphrodite’s Breath if you can wait for me to get to a post office! The soonest would be Thursday or Friday.


      1. She gave me a real fright when it affected her breathing. I now know it’s in her nasal passages — like sinus in humans — but I couldn’t tell if she was breathless from a problem with her lungs and the vet had an oxygen chamber prepared for her in case she had needed it.
        Her breathing has improved a lot, but the rash is only slowly responding to 2x weekly baths. Which, as you can imagine, is no fun for either of us!
        Thank you, but don’t worry about the book for now. I am No 1 in a Q of 22 at the library, they just need to get on and process it!


        1. Poor little thing 🐶 Let’s hope the rash subsides quickly so you can avoid those pesky baths! And let’s hope your library gets on and processes the reserves list! I’m now number 5 (of 6) for Bad Art Mother … and that’s for an e-book; they don’t seem to have bothered buying physical editions.


          1. Amen to that, I’m exhausted! (Thu and Sun are bath days…)
            They may have missed the boat for the paperback. Wakefield isn’t a large press and maybe their print run was quickly exhausted after the nomination?
            My library mercifully has both, at least of the books I’m interested in.


  2. I have been in trouble forever for not taking Milly and the kids to live on a Greek island. Perhaps one of the kids will take her and they can relive this story (womansplaining is rife in our family)


    1. LOL. The Greek islands do hold an allure (I used to do annual solo jaunts to Kos or Rhodes) but if you’re planning on a year-long (or longer) trip, don’t arrive in winter, which is what Susan did. You need to ease yourself into things, so a late spring/early summer arrival would be advisable 😉


  3. I’ve just finished Johnson’s A BETTER WOMAN. I hadn’t heard of her before but really rate her writing. Thanks for this review (and hope you’re very well!)


    1. Hello Ann, so great to hear from you! Yes, all good Down Under 😊 Hope all well with you, too. I haven’t read A Better Woman… that’s her memoir about motherhood, right? Those children have now grown up and fled the nest, which she talks about briefly in this new memoir. Hope you get to read it; I’m sure there will be a UK release date.

      Liked by 1 person

I'd love to know what you think, so please leave a comment below

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.