Susan Johnson has just released a new book, The Landing, and I will, of course, venture to obtain it. But here I want to talk about her 2004 novel, the Broken Book, a wonderfully detailed fictional biography of Charmian Clift.
I learnt quite a bit about Clift – her life with George Johnson, the lack of money they possessed and their time spent with their two daughters on a Greek Island – when I was a younger adult. I have also read her work in Strong-man from Piraeus and Other Stories, a collection of work from both George Johnson and Clift, and Trouble in Lotus Land a collection of her essays. While the true life of Clift is part of an underlying pull throughout Susan Johnson’s text in the Broken Book, she is such a talented writer that the novel is not determined or reliant upon an intrigue or interest in Clift’s life.
Rather, what Johnson has written depicts the way marriages break down, the way hope can grab us when we’re young only to catch us and pull us back down when we grow older. She has written about writers, and the things that dog them, sex for women and girls, and the things they were told about it before WWII, not to mention her depiction of the war itself from the point of view of a Sydney-sider. the Broken Book is mostly, however, a novel about effort, and the cost we all bare when what we get back doesn’t match what we put out.
At times, as well as taking the reader on an extraordinary personal story, there are great moments on the topic of art itself. This from one third of the way in:
“For what is art but an act of grace, a creation of some alternative world so that our own world is momentarily shot through with meaning? If we don’t know why life itself exists, surely art is our last poetic gesture towards the mystery at the heart of us.
This is the reason art still exists through wars, through famine, through our deepest misery. It is the reason why I welcome with open arms my second daughter’s potentially foolhardy vocation as a poet, even though she may well spend the rest of her life in poverty.”