Here’s the stinker I told you was coming….I hate to say I told you so, but….
I’m posting the two latest reviews because I think they clearly prove my point about reviewing, reading etc, in that both reviews say as much about the reader as about the book. This is not to contest the idea of quality — I believe that while there is no quantifiable way of measuring the quality of a work, everyone recognises that some works have greater value than others, so that, say, a work of fiction by Dan Brown can be arguably and demonstrably proved to be a lesser work of fiction than a work by Saul Bellow. I would look at construction of sentences, at the density and power of description, at the overall thematic structure of a work and how well or badly the characterisation and structure and voice and tone of a book holds together. No-one could argue that the work of Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Flaubert is not of a demonstrably higher level than the work of — oh, I don’t know — FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.
Of course, we can argue that within the great recognised works of the western literary canon, many works have been left out — and those would be books by women, largely. And we can also argue that there is something about the way we organise the literary superstructure, so to speak, the prizes, the books editors, the reviewers etc tends to favour the works of male writers over female.
But, even taking all this into account, there is still the undeniable fact that one person’s sensibility and lived experience will differ from another’s — hence, here are two reviews of the very same book that could not be more different if they tried. If or when you are inclined to be next influenced by a book review, or a movie review, or any other sort of review, always remember that your own sensibility and experience of life may differ wildly from the reviewer’s — in other words, take any review as a guide, not as a proven fact.
Here’s the stinker, from Gillian Dooley on Radio Adelaide
Here’s the good one from Emily Maguire in The Australian (sorry had to cut and paste because of the –ahem — pay wall)
Susan Johnson counts life’s loves, chapter by chapter
by: Emily Maguire From: The Australian June 30, 2012
IN her 20-plus years as a journalist, novelist and memoirist, Brisbane writer Susan Johnson has built a reputation as a fearless explorer of the sometimes dark and bitter underside of love – whether platonic, sexual or familial.
In her 2003 memoir A Better Woman and 2004 novel The Broken Book, Johnson focused on the intensity of maternal love and the ways in which it can constrict and enhance creativity.
Johnson’s ninth book, My Hundred Lovers, is, thematically, a culmination of all that came before: the novel is the story of a single life and how it is changed for better and worse by love in all its forms.
On the eve of her 50th birthday, a woman named Deborah finds herself “gripped by an urge to sort through (her) body’s memories” and, in the course of 100 short chapters, each dedicated to a single “lover”, she does just that.
The word lover is defined loosely with chapters dedicated to coffee, feet and houses as well as family members and pets. The inclusiveness is part of the point. Why talk only of passion when the steadfast love of friends shapes us just as powerfully? Why single out sex when the body receives just as much (or, arguably, more) pleasure from food and music and wine?
Not that there’s a lack of sex in My Hundred Lovers. Chapters called The Knee-Trembler and Three Men in One Day deliver precisely what their titles promise, but there’s plenty of naked flesh on flesh in other, more subtly named chapters as well. And whether it’s erotic, funny, awkward or painful, Johnson gets it exactly right. She is especially good at portraying the greedy, reality-denying rush of infatuation and the deeper, lengthier “erotic swoon” in which a previously sensible person turns into a muddle-headed, sex-induced addict.
Deborah refers to many of her sexual partners by slightly cruel nicknames such as “the sad-faced boy”, “the older filmmaker” and “the bottom lover”, and these memorable but less transformational encounters are given only a single chapter each.
In contrast, the true loves of her life – her grandmother, her friends Ro and Steph, her child – recur throughout the book, each broad sketch or small detail building on the last. Sex is not part of these love affairs, but Deborah’s memories of them are deeply grounded in the physical: “the sensation of love in the rhythm” her grandmother tapped out on her back while hugging her, “the hot swell of newborn flesh” against her breast as she fed her son, the “beautiful rolling bottom” of Ro as she walked ahead.
Throughout the book, Johnson plays with the narrative point of view to great effect. Moments from Deborah’s occasionally abusive childhood and romantically tormented university years are narrated in the third person; it is “her”, “the girl” who had a knife held to her throat and who pined over an unattainable academic. After she flees to Paris (which itself becomes an important, long-term lover) the girl becomes “the Suspicious Wanderer” and remains so during the most troubled, restless years of her life.
The present (and occasional joyous moments from the past) are narrated in the first person, and it is clear that it is this woman – this “I” – who Deborah feels is her best and truest self.
As they must in any truly honest account of the physical self, disease, ageing and death feature heavily. Deborah observes that her mother and grandmother were “both reduced to pure body in the end” and it is to the “empty” bodies of her aged or deceased relatives that she compares her own ageing form. A newly formed bunion, for example, prompts the reflection that her foot now looks the same as her father’s did “when he was an old man, misshapen buckled, ready to walk towards the last of its numbered days”.
But although Johnson is blunt about the indignities and griefs of ageing, My Hundred Lovers is, in the end, a genuinely life-affirming book. Yes, it’s true that “every day unique in its details (is) already passing, vanishing, like breath”, but what a privilege to be able to enjoy this day, this experience, this lover right now. “I am an ordinary citizen of the sated world and nothing exceptional has ever happened to me,” Deborah says, yet how lovely it is to be just that: ordinary, sated, loved and loving.
My Hundred Lovers
By Susan Johnson
Allen & Unwin, 280pp, $27.99
Interesting, no, the difference between the two? Discuss.