Although I’d been looking forward to reading Fall Girl, Toni Jordan’s new book, I felt a little anxious. This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to review a book by someone that I actually know. Toni and I are fellow-members of Melbourne PEN, the local chapter of International PEN, which works worldwide to secure freedom to write. Toni coordinates the writing of letters to governments that imprison and torture journalists, editors and authors who don’t toe the official line; for about a year, I’ve been doing Africa.
I enjoyed Addition, Toni’s first book – which was long-listed for the Miles Franklin, and shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis and various other writing awards. But what if I didn’t like her second book? How would I handle writing an honest review? As a reader who pays out good money for books, I don’t like it when reviewers decide not to write a review if they don’t care for the book. That leaves the hapless buyer in the dark; and so does fudging a positive review because the author is a friend.
Perhaps this uncomfortable dilemma may happen one day, but it wasn’t a problem with Fall Girl. It was just the right book for me to read while I battle the jet lag – it’s original, it’s clever, and it’s very funny. The plot is fast-paced and engaging but not too arduous for a brain that’s still partly in Barcelona…
Remember that BBC series called Hustle? The one with the team of con artists who set up elaborate stings to relieve the rich of their money? (See a trailer here). They had a kind of Robin Hood view of the world, and they were so attractive and clever and funny, moral scruples seemed irrelevant and they made crime look glamorous and sexy. Fall Girl is a similar sort of concept except that it’s lifted out of the simplistic chick-lit genre by exploring the ambiguities of the heroine’s life…
Having seen some of the cheery publicity for this book, I hadn’t expected to find myself comparing family life in Fall Girl to the reclusive world of spies in Christopher Koch’s The Memory Room. When ‘work’ requires constant shifts in the identity presented to the world, and fear of detection frames every move and limits the social circle, a person loses a sense of what’s normal. An alert reader will notice the way in which Jordan skilfully weaves in little bits of information that show the widening cracks in Della’s world as she takes on an ambitious project to relieve the very rich, very handsome Daniel, of a quarter of a million dollars.
For even as we chuckle over her bush-walking misadventures we discover that she’s never been camping because she’s never been to school. Too dangerous, a kid might let something slip at Show-and-Tell, right? She might really have been a scientist, she thinks, instead of just faking field research at Wilson’s Prom to find the (extinct) Tasmanian Tiger.
Pottering around the house between reading, I found that Fall Girl was provoking thoughts about notorious crime families in the media. Della’s family isn’t violent but they have a warped value system not shared by the wider community. What’s it like to live in such a constant state of disconnect? And how do the choices that such parents have made impact on the opportunities and lifestyles of their children?
The first person narration gives us some idea. Della is a bright, amusing, self-confident young woman who uses her powers of observation to create different selves as the sting requires. Her ‘job description’ requires meticulous planning; acute observation of behaviour, mannerisms and indicators of social status; cooperative team work; and absolute reliance on confidentiality within the team. She’s been doing this ‘work’ successfully for many years, but now there are petty lifestyle irritations: improvements in crime detection such as car engine number tracing and serial numbers on electrical equipment make repairs difficult. She’s begun to notice that a house furnished with opportunistic acquisitions that don’t match isn’t much of a home. Crucial to the plot, she begins to feel a streak of competitiveness – a desire to impress and outdo other family members with her sting, and (because this is a romantic comedy after all) she’s reached the age where she wants a relationship outside her circumscribed circle – and that’s against ‘house rules’.
The witty dialogue is matched by some exquisite description:
This part of the park was burnt out by fires and the hills around the track are an eerie desecrated moonscape with black trunks stuck in the ground like angry spears. Along the edges of the trunks and the forks of the branches are flashes of new growth, iridescent green, and sprinkled along the black ground are long tufts of leaves, each cradling a perfect white native orchid. (p73)
Addition is soon to be made into a film, and the plot twists, misunderstandings, wardrobe malfunctions and yes, tweaks on the Pride and Prejudice theme would make an entertaining movie of Fall Girl too. Suggestions for the romantic leads in comments, please, I can’t go past Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, but that romantic liaison was filmed 15 years ago now and he’s 50 now!
Author: Toni Jordan
Title: Fall Girl
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2010
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing