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.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘From Where I Fell’ by Susan Johnson

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 352 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I do love a good epistolary novel, and this new one by Australian writer Susan Johnson is a good one!

From Where I Fell is composed of a year-long exchange of emails between two women on opposite sides of the planet whose correspondence is sometimes fraught but always frank.

It begins when Sydney-based Pamela Robinson emails her ex-husband in Paris, only to discover she’s got the right name but used the wrong email address: her heartfelt missive has landed in the inbox of New York-based teacher Chrisanthi Woods by accident. What follows is a strange and wonderful correspondence in which two women, at different stages of their lives, develop an online friendship free of the burden of up-close-and-personal contact.

The two are polar opposites in temperament and outlook. Newly divorced Pamela is self-obsessed and nursing old wounds, struggling to raise three boys alone in strained financial circumstances having repatriated to Australia after living in France for many years, while Chris, married but child-free, is opinionated and independent, a woman who does everything to help others but rarely gets the credit. One is well travelled and supposedly worldly-wise, the other has lived in the same city her whole life.

An unlikely friendship

Over the course of their correspondence, the women share confidences and problems, offer moral support and encouragement to each other, but occasionally one offends the other and long silences ensue.

Are you there?
From:
Pamela Robinson
To:
Chris Woods
Hi Chris,

Just wondering if you’ve forgiven me. I miss your emails.

With love,
Pamela

Through their emails, we come to understand the circumstances of each character’s day-to-day existence, their struggles and triumphs, their ups and downs and everything in between. We see how they evolve over time, how they adjust to change and move on with their lives.

And we also begin to recognise their personality quirks — Pamela’s constant need to talk about herself, to moan and complain, and Chris’s tendency to cut her down to size or take umbrage at what’s been said  — albeit framed through a single, one-dimensional lens, for we can only see these characters through their ability (or inability) to express themselves in written language. We do not really know how the people in their lives see them.

Re: A dream
From:
Chris Woods
To: Pamela Robinson

Don’t you get sick of talking about yourself all the time?

The story works because we are following the narratives of their lives, which are filled with dramas, and we want to know how things will pan out.

Pamela, for instance, is losing control of her three sons (her eldest is physically abusive) while her ex-husband refuses to speak to her. Chris, on the other hand, is losing control of her aged mother, who wants to repatriate to Greece, and is constantly fighting with her sister who is her mother’s favourite.

These domestic grapples are set against a larger backdrop that puts everyone’s problems into perspective: Chris is giving English lessons to two Syrian teenage refugees who fled the bombing in Raqqa with their mother and do not know what happened to their father.

An unlikely friendship

From Where I Fell is an easy read, the kind that slips down like silky smooth hot chocolate on a cold winter’s afternoon.

It’s full of delicious little moments, snide comments, funny barbs and forthright confessions. It’s about the passage of life — marriage, divorce, motherhood, making a home and building a career (not necessarily in that order) — and all the pain, regret, sorrow and joy that make us human. It’s witty, warm and heartbreaking.

I very much enjoyed being in the company of these wonderfully resilient women.

This is my 2nd book for #AWW2021.  

Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.

FICTION

PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER
CRIME
LITERARY FICTION
HISTORICAL FICTION
DYSTOPIAN FICTION
EXPERIMENTAL FICTION
SHORT STORIES

NON-FICTION

TRUE CRIME
ESSAYS
MEMOIR

Reading Australia 2016

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘The Landing’ by Susan Johnson

The Landing

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 288 pages; 2015.

“If a separated man — about to be divorced — is in possession of a good fortune, must he be in want of a new wife?”

So begins Susan Johnson‘s The Landing, which tells the story of a well-to-do, good-looking 55-year-old man trying to recalibrate his life after his wife leaves him for a woman.

Jonathan Lott is scared of being alone, but he can’t quite believe that his marriage is over. Seeking solitude  — and a place to lick his wounds — he spends as much time as he can at the couple’s holiday home at The Landing, 150km north of Brisbane.

But in this quiet lakeside community  — with just a few streetlights, a couple of bitumen roads, no reticulated water or sewage and patchy mobile phone coverage — Jonathan’s comings and goings are witnessed (and commented upon) by the locals who live there.

What results is a relatively lighthearted story that is essentially a comedy of manners — when is it socially acceptable to start dating again after you’ve separated, for instance — that focuses not just on Jonathan’s lacklustre love life but the lives and loves of pretty much everyone living in this rural backwater, including: Penny Collins, her demanding and elderly French mother Marie and her shallow and narcissistic daughter Scarlet; Sylv, who runs the only shop in town; Paul Raymond, who leaves his wife to shack up with the much younger Scarlet; Gordie, the Glaswegian doctor, and his pretty daughter Anna; and Giselle, a seven-year-old girl from an impoverished background who roams The Landing in search of company.

The complex nature of love 

The narrative comprises multiple, interleaved layers that to unpick it would be like peeling an onion. But the real strength of this novel lies in Johnson’s ability to capture the nitty-gritty of people’s lives, the often complicated relationships and tensions between different generations of the one family, and the complex nature of love in all its many forms — romantic, sexual and familial.

The frailties of the human heart are captured with insight and delicacy, lifting this story from the bog standard romance the cover might suggest, to one that is full of nuance and humour and moments of pitch-perfect clarity. And all the characters, so richly drawn, feel intensely human.

Combined with such eloquent writing — Johnson’s descriptions of the landscape and the wildlife that abounds in The Landing are particularly evocative and lyrical — makes for a superb, effortless read.

I really enjoyed The Landing, but in the spirit of transparency should point out I know the author. Indeed, we had lunch together when she was en route to Paris to begin working on the edits of this novel. I ended up buying my copy when I went to Australia last year — and couldn’t wait to read it.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review.

Unfortunately The Landing hasn’t been published in the UK, but you can order a copy via the Book Depository.

This is my 50th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 33rd for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson, William Heinemann

‘Life in Seven Mistakes’ by Susan Johnson

Lifein7mistakes

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.

Second narrative

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.