I was delighted to discover this new book from Toni Jordan because it’s a departure from her two previous romantic comedies, signalling that Jordan is an author who’s interested in experimenting with different styles of writing. I enjoyed both the Miles Franklin longlisted Addition and Fall Girl (see my review) but Nine Days is historical fiction with cross-over into the present. Like the ‘rom-coms’, it also tackles social issues. Nine Days is a poignant exploration of the ties that divide and bind communities, and of social mobility.
Written in nine chapters by nine different voices from the Westaway family, the novel was inspired by the photograph that’s on the front cover. To see how this writing school cliché has been transformed into a compelling narrative is amazing. Since the novel is structured to disrupt chronology, the reader doesn’t learn who the two lovers are until near the end of the book, and the photo itself is almost forgotten. It’s so well done…
The story is set in Melbourne’s Richmond, now gentrified as it never was in the 1970s when I was a frequent visitor there to see Aunty Gwen (who wasn’t my aunt.) Jordan has captured perfectly not only the streets and lanes, the pubs and the massive factories such as Bryant and May’s but also the strong ambitions for social mobility among Catholic families. In the days when the school leaving-age was only 12, it was staying on at school that made the difference. Getting your Merit Certificate in Form 2 (Year 8) meant a better job, maybe a trade; getting your Intermediate (Form 4/Year 10) meant a white-collar job in insurance or banking. Beyond that meant the professions: getting your Leaving certificate (Form 5/Year 11) meant you could be a teacher or a nurse*, and getting your Matriculation certificate meant you could go to university if you could win a scholarship too*.
But finding the money to keep the children at school was a struggle for fatherless families. The Widows’ Pension was introduced by John Curtin’s Labour government in 1942 but that was too late for Kip, who introduces the story in 1939, four years before the school leaving-age was raised to 15. It was also too late for his sister Connie, who had to leave Art School and char for her mother’s boarder, the irascible Mrs Keith. Ma went out to work to keep Kip’s twin brother Francis at school, but she could not manage it for both boys. Education for Connie was never a possibility: Ma’s ambitions for her daughter meant marrying ‘up’ and out of Richmond and into leafy Hawthorn.
I like the way that Jordan has not romanticised community life in a suburb like Richmond. Her characters struggle to be ‘respectable’ in a place where others were not and had no ambition to be. The divide between these sub-cultures is represented by the gang which terrorises Kip and his brother well into adulthood, and by the inescapable gossip which can so easily trigger a fall from respectability and the end of any hopes of ‘moving up the hill’.
In Jordan’s novel it seems to be women who are most alert to shades of respectability. These layers of respectability are partly identifiable by the number of children in a family, but also by domestic arrangements such as the use of table napkins and brands of crockery, or the wearing of gloves and hats. Mrs Husting’s hostility towards Kip when he takes up work for her husband as a stable hand is overt. Sneering down at him from her upstairs window, she uses the pretence that she cannot see him to make extremely rude remarks about him.
‘I’d like to know who else in this city would suffer to have the likes of him hanging around morning and night and pay for the privilege. Hundreds of boys wanting work in a two-mile radius, good boys, not layabouts. Boys that don’t squander their opportunities’. (p6)
Kip’s mother is terrified of gossip and, tragically, takes what she thinks are necessary measures to ward it off. The theme of constraints on the lives of women in this period is lightly sketched but unmissable, especially in the contrast between the 21st century choices available to Charlotte and Stanzi.
As in her previous novels, Jordan has a fine ear for dialogue. Each character has a distinctive ‘voice’ which is consistent with era, gender, and personality.
But when I get back to the wall in Mary Street, they’re not there. Maybe I got the place or the time wrong, or they’re not going to come at all and it’s their idea of a big jape. And then I see them turn the corner, walking casual as you like, with bags over their shoulders.
I lean on the wall straightaway. I nod.
‘Hope we haven’t kept you waiting, Frankie,’ says Jim.
‘Just got here. Thought the brothers might of kept me back.’
‘What for?’ says Mac.
I look to the heavens. ‘Where do I start? All the trouble I get into.’
‘I knew you’d fit right in Frankie,’ says Jim. ‘Let’s go’. (p132)
Jordan also inverts expectations about the war as a major backdrop to the novel. The story begins just as ‘that Mr Hitler’ is generating concern in faraway Australia, and there are allusions to the pressures for and against enlistment, as well as to rationing but this story is more about families and the connections between them across generations. To reveal much about that would spoil the reading for others, so I’ll confine myself to recommending Nine Days as most enjoyable reading, that would be a fine choice for book groups.
*I’m not sure when bursaries/studentships were introduced, but I know people ‘of a certain age’ who won Education Department teaching bursaries some time in the 1940s. Commonwealth Scholarships were introduced by the Menzies government in 1951, but prior to that there were philanthropic scholarships as there still are today. Examples that I know of are the Caroline Kay scholarship set up in 1894 or the music scholarship that enabled my music teacher Valda Johnstone to attend the Conservatorium in the 1930s.
To find out more about Toni Jordan, see Meet an Aussie Author.
Sue at Whispering Gums enjoyed it too.
PS I will be discussing this book with the author at [Untitled] the Stonnington Literary festival on November 17th, click the link for more details.
Author: Toni Jordan
Title: Nine Days
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text