There’s a most interesting author photo on the back of Life in Seven Mistakes: it shows Susan Johnson blinking into the sun with her hand, palm outward, shielding her face. (Click here to see it). It’s as if she is on the one hand warding off scrutiny and on the other pushing people away so that they can’t get close to her. It’s a gesture that might well be made by the central character in this book…
Life in Seven Mistakes by Susan Johnson is a delicious black comedy, woven around the phenomenon inflicted on all of us whose parents have retired to the so-called Sunshine State: the Dreaded Family Christmas at Surfers Paradise. Elizabeth Barton, the central character, is a baby boomer wracked by guilt, resentment, self-imposed martyrdom and suppressed anger: she’s got a commission to finish for the very first solo international exhibition of her ceramics – but instead of preparing for it, she’s traipsed up to the Gold Coast for Christmas and her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.
Elizabeth sits freezing on the sofa thinking that her worst nightmare would be to be trapped forever in a room with her family. Four days is her limit and this is the fag end of the third day of her annual ten-day pilgrimage from Melbourne. It is the first holiday in the new Gold Coast penthouse… (p5)
Ten days, and she’s not even warm, because her irascible father insists on running the AirCon to the max! Why is she doing it, risking not finishing a piece for the exhibition that starts in New York in the second week of January?? Because of ‘duty, guilt and some unfulfilled longing, a never quite extinguished urge to try to make good of the mess of the past ‘ and because ‘her first family exerts a troubling pull on her heart , and she suffers nostalgia for some unspecified moment, now lost.’ (p6)
This book had me hooked from the very first page, and it gets better and better with each successive chapter. The dissection of the modern family is witty and sly; it entraps the reader into identifying with the Bartons en famille and then repudiating them in relief. ‘Oh, just like my family!’ I kept thinking, and then ‘Oh, at least my family’s not as bad as that!’
Bob and Nance are wonderful creations. Nance is one of those serene malevolent bullies who gets her own way because her way is the only way, and he’s bombastic and breathtakingly patronising. Johnson lets their victims do what we would all sometimes love to do: Robbie’s feisty wife walks out of a family dinner in a restaurant when Bob’s impossibly rude, and Neil, Elizabeth’s husband just disappears for long periods of time. They do this because they can: they’re only in-laws, not siblings who each in their own way must try to perpetuate the myth of the Happy Family.
The push and pull of love and loyalty in this story is superb. My favourite moment, I think, is when Elizabeth’s husband, not a perfect partner by any stretch of the imagination and fresh from a blazing row with her, steps in to protect Elizabeth from her father. Like most people who work in the arts, Elizabeth has had to depend on her father, her husbands (she’s had three) and the occasional arts council grant for financial support. Now there is a fish-and-chips dinner to be paid for and Bob is pouring scorn on her ability to pay.
‘Won’t moths fly out of your wallet if you open it, Bubs? That’ll be worth seeing, kids, your mother paying for something! She’s been living off arts council hand-outs for most of her bloody life. In fact, now that I think about it, the Australian taxpayer’s probably buying the tucker’.
Elizabeth cannot believe she ever felt pity for her father and looks helplessly at Neil. ‘Actually, Bob, it’s my shout tonight,’ Neil says. Elizabeth smiles at him. (p217)
Well, I would have too! (And what a gift Johnson has for dialogue!)
With Christmas only a week away, now is a really good time to be reading this. Johnson has skewered this annual endurance event with pinpoint accuracy: the unaccustomed intimacy with people you have ceased to know very well; the under-the-surface conflicts; nostalgia for the simplicity of childhood; angst over presents; kitchen warfare (invaders, begone!); the lack of respect for other people’s life choices; the failure to forgive for disappointments and failures; and the clash of standards from hygiene to child-rearing to ironing the sheets. Yet it is a coming-of-age story too, only this time the one who has to grow up most is a middle-aged woman behaving like an adolescent.
I think it was Stephanie Dowrick who once wrote that there comes a time when growing up means recognising your parents for who they are, and accepting them. Teenagers are scornful because their parents are so uncool; style-conscious twenty-somethings snipe about parental house-decorating and daggy cooking. New parents are merciless in their deconstruction of their parents’ shortcomings in child-rearing, and as the children become adolescents the forty-something parent tries to delay middle-age by being ‘best friends’ with their children, as their parents were ‘too straitlaced’ to be.
There comes a time however when these criticisms seem paltry and puerile. Parents are just people, and as we muddle through our own lives (making many more than seven mistakes in my case), we realise that they’re trying to do their best just the same as we are. There’s nothing heavy-handed about Elizabeth coming to this conclusion, however, and what Katie says about them being a family incapable of communicating is just as true in the novel’s painful climax as it is at the beginning.
Johnson asks some difficult questions in Life in Seven Mistakes.
- How does a creative woman reconcile her need to work with family demands? It’s not just the poor timing of this visit for Elizabeth’s career, it’s been a constant in her life ever since her first husband smashed one of her pots. On her drive out to the prison to see Nick, she is ‘relieved and happy to be alone’ (p162), free from worries both major and minor. This is an issue as alive now as it was when Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of Her Own. I have one, (my library). Most women don’t.
- How do you teach responsibility to your children, and how/when must you be responsible for yourself? Elizabeth went on relying on her father for handouts for far too long, and it wasn’t until a drug counsellor told Bob to stop bailing Nick out of trouble that the cheques stopped for Elizabeth too. The corollary to this is: does helping out your kids give you the right to control and judge them because they live by different imperatives?
- Can you avoid being the product of your parents? Elizabeth is so like her mother in many ways – she doesn’t stand up to her father and neither does Nancy. Robbie is starting to look and act a bit like Bob too, and while Johnson doesn’t overplay the irony, it’s scary when we recognise this in ourselves. That first time when we use the same phrase as our mothers is a wake-up call for all of us! And that dreadful moment when we realise – that just like our so-boring and tedious parents – we’ve told this same anecdote more than once. Oh, the hot flush of embarrassment!
- Is it tougher to bring up children today? Methinks this is a bit self-indulgent, because even though there are drugs and too much alcohol and consumerism, and there are no secure jobs any more and houses are too expensive et al – I don’t think there could be anything worse than bringing up a child at a time when they were expected to go off to World War I or II, or the Depression meant hunger and privation that we can only try to imagine. Still, it is tricky for today’s parents, and I know I’m very proud of my son for being the wise and intelligent man that he is.
Perhaps because I live in Melbourne, I especially enjoyed the use of the weather as metaphor in this novel. Inside the penthouse there is the frigid atmosphere of a family that can’t communicate; outside there is the sun browbeating them into torpidity and reinforcing inaction. Well, I get off the plane at Coolangatta to visit my parents at Burleigh Waters and I feel as if someone has slapped me in the face with a damp and tepid face flannel. I can’t go for my usual walk in the morning because of the remorseless humidity, and the harsh sunshine makes me feel limp and useless. I don’t know how anyone gets anything done in a climate like that; I just want to lie about and drink G&Ts. For me, the bracing wind of a Melbourne beach on a winter’s day is bliss, and the horridness of summer is something that must be briefly borne, preferably indoors.
In Life in Seven Mistakes there are brilliant descriptions of the ‘unimaginative Queensland sun’ (p154), and the unrelenting light:
Standing in the humid air Elizabeth feels her shirt sticking to her back and pinpricks of sweat forming beneath her fringe. There is a strange bleached quality to the light, a whiteness which paradoxically absorbs everything else into it while at the same magnifying and burnishing every colour. ‘ (p155)
This reminds me of my son, living in Perth for a while, telling me that he missed Melbourne’s weather, because it had ‘personality’!
Life in Seven Mistakes is a terrific book and I am pleased to see from Susan Johnson’s blog that there is another novel on the way. She is one of our best and most accomplished writers, and I look forward to reading more of her work.
PS 20.12.09 Synchronicity, that’s what it is. Johnson writes movingly about the creative spirit and how Elizabeth expresses her sense of self in her ceramics – and by coincidence I see on Steph’s blog that very same artistry…
Steph (who blogs about books too) is a talented artist with wool but she also makes gorgeous ceramics. Her Monet’s Garden Crystal Glaze platters ones are especially beautiful, and I kept thinking of them when Johnson wrote so compellingly about Elizabeth’s art, helping me to understand more of the complexity of the task and the joy that comes with a successful firing. Click the link to see Steph’s platters here: the page takes a little while to load but it is worth it.
Author: Susan Johnson
Title: Life in Seven Mistakes
Publisher: William Heinemann, (Random House) 2008
Source: Personal copy, bought from Benn’s Books in Bentleigh, $32.95.
Fishpond:Life in Seven Mistakes: A Novel